A fresh parliamentary session will be convened on Monday as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is thrust into a perilous position as public outcry grows over his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Suga’s ambitions to realize his signature projects on digitalization and carbon reduction have been overshadowed by the virus, which has sickened thousands of people, overwhelmed hospitals and rattled the public’s confidence in his administration. Those initiatives will be sidelined at least until he brings the epidemic under control, and the Diet passes an economic stimulus package and the government’s fiscal 2021 budget.

Through the 150-day ordinary Diet session that wraps up June 16, the prime minister will first need to re-establish his grip on power through effective actions on the coronavirus or risk losing momentum on his key policy goals.

“In the upcoming Diet session … the government will ask the Diet to debate budgets and bills that will directly affect people’s lives,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said during a news conference Thursday. “We’ll deal with the task to ensure they will be enacted as soon as possible.”

At least for the time being, Suga’s hands will be tied as he battles the COVID-19 crisis. On that front, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komeito hope to quickly pass revisions of several laws related to public health, including legislation on special coronavirus measures. By soliciting support from the opposition camp, the ruling coalition hopes to mandate compensation for businesses that comply with requests to close or shorten business hours, and penalties of up to ¥500,000 for those who don’t.

With Suga rapidly losing public support, opposition parties will attempt to highlight its slow response — which they claim has exacerbated the coronavirus crisis in the country. However, it’s uncertain whether the opposition will be able to win over the public by simply criticizing Suga on his coronavirus response or over multiple stewing scandals, or by standing in blunt opposition to the prime minister’s digitalization proposals.

The worsening coronavirus situation will be one of the primary pillars of Suga’s policy speech to be delivered Monday.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga takes part in a meeting about the government's coronavirus response on Jan. 7 at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo. | PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE / VIA KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga takes part in a meeting about the government’s coronavirus response on Jan. 7 at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo. | PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE / VIA KYODO

The administration’s plan to turn the tide in the nation’s fight against the deadly disease rests on three specific steps: the state of emergency, a rollout of vaccines set to commence by the end of February and the revision to the coronavirus special measures law. The carrot-and-stick amendment to encourage compliance to anti-virus measures is expected to be approved by the Cabinet as early as this week and pass the Diet by early next month.

The government is also considering revising the infectious disease prevention law. By doing so, the government could impose a fine of up to ¥1 million or a prison term of up to a year for COVID-19 patients who refuse to be hospitalized and punish those who refuse to cooperate with a public health center’s contact-tracing efforts with a fine up to ¥500,000.

The surging epidemic and rising death toll are not the only headwinds facing the prime minister — diving approval ratings will also weigh heavily on Suga’s mind. The latest opinion poll by the Mainichi daily showed his Cabinet’s approval rating had declined to 33%, a 7 point drop from last month and a 31 point plunge from September when his Cabinet was formed.

Suga has not been able to convey a sense of urgency so far and he needs to do that in the Diet, said Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University.

“If the public perceives that the prime minister is doing everything he can to contain the virus, the situation will change,” Nonaka said.

Opposition parties have lambasted Suga for prioritizing the economy over public health by pointing to his initial reluctance to suspend the Go To Travel subsidy program, halt entries by business travelers and declare a state of emergency.

Nevertheless, all opposition parties, with the exception of the Japanese Community Party, are expected to side with the ruling coalition and back bills that could lead to fines for those who don’t follow coronavirus countermeasures.

“Japan is still in the middle of a crisis,” Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano said in a Jan. 5 news conference. “We still have to deal with COVID-19 for some time, but we should thoroughly focus on getting out of the crisis, at least for now.”

The ordinary Diet session will begin on Monday amid a surge in COVID-19 cases that has damaged the popularity of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. | BLOOMBERG
The ordinary Diet session will begin on Monday amid a surge in COVID-19 cases that has damaged the popularity of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. | BLOOMBERG

At the same time, there are fears among the opposition about the possibility of their plans backfiring if they push Suga too far on his coronavirus response or target him too harshly over scandals involving former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ex-agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa. It would also be difficult for the opposition to flatly oppose proposals such as the digitalization of outdated administrative procedures and the lowering of NHK license fees, moves that are widely seen as popular with the public.

The Suga administration hopes the Diet will swiftly approve a ¥73.6 trillion stimulus package and a record-high ¥106.6 trillion fiscal 2021 budget on top of a ¥21.8 trillion third supplementary budget. Those blueprints are earmarked for speeding up recovery and funding Suga’s key projects, including the creation of a government agency to promote digitalization.

Suga is hoping to underscore results in his signature projects ahead of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest in September and the Lower House election, which must be held by October, when the current members’ terms end.

Whether or not he can conserve his strength up until that point by putting the criticism over his coronavirus response in the rearview mirror is a major and potentially administration-defining question.

“The administration is being put under the microscope as to whether it can ride out this winter,” said Naoko Taniguchi, a political scientist at Keio University. “We don’t know what the infection situation will look like in February. … If the vaccine is available in February, the transmission of infectious diseases slows down as the temperature rises in the spring and the economy swings back, the administration could take advantage of” an improved situation.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano attends a Diet session in November. | KYODO
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano attends a Diet session in November. | KYODO

Aside from Diet debates, Suga’s popularity as the face of the ruling LDP will be tested in a by-election in Nagano Prefecture scheduled for April 25. The LDP decided not to field a candidate for another by-election in Hokkaido, scandal-hit Yoshikawa’s former seat. Those races are seen as important preludes to the general election, and the damage to Suga would be devastating if a party-backed candidate loses in Nagano.

Hakubun Shimomura, the LDP’s policy council chairman, speculated on Jan. 5, before the decision not to field a candidate in Hokkaido was made, that a loss in those two seats could “lead to a political power struggle,” hinting that it could even trigger an internal rebellion to oust Suga before the elections later this year. LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai later blasted the remark in an attempt to mitigate the fallout.

Still, Shimomura’s candidness reflected skepticism by some LDP members over Suga’s viability as a long-term leader.

Keio’s Taniguchi said that, no matter who is the prime minister, the Japanese public tends to be critical during times of crisis, contradicting the so-called rally-around-the-flag effect that would induce a bump in short-term support for a leader in times of distress, which is often the case overseas.

“Conversely, if the administration pulls through the current crisis and manages the economy well, the people have a tendency to overlook other points (such as scandals),” she said. “If it takes too much time to rebuild the economy after the spring, when things are starting to recover, there will be criticism from the opposition.”

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