OSAKA – Four months into his term as prime minister, Yoshihide Suga is facing a mountain of problems and low approval ratings. From controversial new legislation aimed at bringing the coronavirus under control to the fate of the Tokyo Olympics to scandals within his party, Suga’s leadership ability and style is under increased scrutiny and criticism. As his term expires in September and a general election must be held by October, how he handles these problems over the next few months could determine his political fate this autumn.
The most pressing issues Suga faces start with effectively implementing the soon-to-be-passed coronavirus-related laws that include fines for businesses that refuse local government orders to shut their doors early or close down during an emergency.
While under the old system the government can declare a state of emergency due to the coronavirus, local directives from governors to businesses to close early or shut down entirely are followed voluntarily, and there are no fines or jail time for business owners that refuse.
Under the new legislation, business owners will likely face fines of up to ¥300,000 if they do not obey orders by the local government to shorten their hours of operation under a state of emergency, and fines of up to ¥200,000 if they refuse to obey when the situation is classified as being just short of a state of emergency.
The new fines are expected to hit bars, nightclubs and restaurants particularly hard at a time when the coronavirus has already forced many to close, reduce employee pay or take other cost-cutting measures to survive. But the prospect of fines, which come just after the state of emergency was extended until March 7 and are not accompanied by additional economic assistance to bars and restaurants well beyond that promised in the ¥19 trillion third extra fiscal 2020 budget passed in late January, could lead to a further plunge in Suga’s popularity.
The prime minister and his Liberal Democratic Party must also grapple with local election losses in Kitakyushu, where six LDP members of the city assembly have lost their seats. Furthermore, in the mayoral election for Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, a ruling coalition-backed candidate was defeated by a member of the Tomin First no Kai party who had the support of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.
To top it off, just as Suga was preparing to extend the state of emergency until March 7, he found himself forced to apologize in the Diet on Monday after three Lower House LDP members — Jun Matsumoto, Taido Tanose and Takashi Otsuka — resigned from the party after admitting they were at a hostess bar in violation of the state of emergency. They remain in the Diet, even though a Lower House member of ruling coalition partner Komeito, Kiyohiko Toyama, resigned from the Diet after admitting he also visited a hostess bar during the state of emergency.
The Tokyo Olympics, which is officially set to begin on July 23, also weighs on the prime minister, with the Olympic torch relay due to commence March 25. Over the past few weeks, a growing number of media reports have indicated that, due to coronavirus concerns, prospects for the Tokyo Olympics grow bleaker by the day. While Japanese Olympic officials and the International Olympic Committee insist that the games will go ahead, under what conditions, and whether there will be spectators, has yet to be made clear.
Suga is caught between Japanese Olympic officials, politicians and businesses that want to press on with the games and concerns about what the coronavirus situation will be like come the summer. Recent media polls show that up to 80% of the public now favors either postponement or cancellation of the Tokyo Games.
At this point, Suga faces two decisions, both fraught with risk. Going ahead with the Tokyo Olympics means the capital could become a superspreader for the virus if the contagion is not under control by then. But cancellation is an expensive prospect for Japan. Among other things, it involves fees that could create a legal mess with the IOC.
It would also disrupt the prime minister’s hope that, by holding a successful Olympics, he would strengthen his position, leading to a victory in the LDP leadership race and giving his party a big win in the general election that must be called by October. A decision on the games one way or the other, however, must come soon.
Adding to the pressure is the political schedule over the next few months. Late last year, Suga found himself under fire for several scandals involving either the LDP or his role in a payment scandal and false Diet testimony involving former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, under whom Suga served as chief Cabinet secretary.
One of the LDP-related scandals involved former agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa. He was indicted earlier last month after allegedly receiving ¥5 million from the former president of a Hiroshima Prefecture-based egg producer.
The indictment came after Yoshikawa, citing health reasons, resigned as a Lower House member in December. His seat, in a district of Hokkaido that includes part of Sapporo, is being contested in the April 25 by-election. But the LDP decided voter anger was too strong, and has elected not to field a candidate.
That same day, another by-election will take place in Nagano for an Upper House seat to replace former Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Yuichiro Hata, who died in December. Senior LDP figure Hakubun Shimomura, who serves as the party’s Policy Research Council chair, said earlier last month, before the party decided not field a candidate in the Hokkaido race, that losses in Hokkaido and Nagano would greatly damage the Suga administration. In addition, an Upper House seat in Hiroshima is being contested due to the resignation of Anri Kawai.
The LDP can now really only hope to win a seat in Hiroshima, where they have traditionally been strong, because opposition parties have been more powerful in Nagano.
Meanwhile, prospects of a popularity boost through successful diplomacy appear slim. The coronavirus pandemic means major international summits and high-profile, face-to-face bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, either in Japan or abroad, are on hold. Chinese President Xi Jinping had been scheduled to make a state visit to Japan last April, but that was canceled due to the coronavirus and there is no plan to reschedule it anytime soon.
While Suga hopes to meet U.S. President Joe Biden, who he knows from Biden’s visits to Japan as vice president when Suga was chief Cabinet secretary, as soon as possible, it is unclear what, if any, boost that might give to his popularity at home.
The prime minister's unenviable position so early in his term has been attributed to Suga’s communication skills and tense relationship with the media. He has received criticism for answering questions by reading from prepared documents, and he often appears uncomfortable when forced to go off the cuff during Diet questioning or at news conferences. There is also a sense, reflected in media opinion polls, that he has not adequately explained the reasons for his decisions regarding the continuation of the controversial Go To Travel campaign, which was recently blamed by one report for a rise in coronavirus infections, and the declaration of emergencies for Tokyo and the surrounding area.
Media reports that Suga can be very thin-skinned have not helped his cause. In December during an NHK program, Suga was reportedly angry with the organization questioning him over why he blocked the appointment of six appointees to the Science Council of Japan who had been critical of the Abe administration. The anger reportedly stemmed from the fact that the question caught Suga off guard.
Even with the prime minister's mounting problems, he remains relatively secure in power at the moment. He faces no strong rivals for his position, either within the ruling LDP and Komeito coalition or from the opposition.
Despite his own problems with scandals related to members of his faction, powerful LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who supported Suga's bid to become prime minister and convinced other powerful party faction leaders to back him, remains committed to him.
Among other LDP members, there has been much speculation over COVID-19 vaccine czar Taro Kono being a possible successor. Others — such as former policy chief and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who lost the LDP presidency and thus the prime ministerial race to Suga in September — are also said to be interested in taking the reins. But there appears to be no clear LDP member, or anyone within Komeito, who could immediately replace Suga.
In addition, the main opposition parties are even less popular than Suga. Media polls by NHK and Kyodo this month put the CDP's support rate at just 6.6% and 7.8%, respectively. Thus, with no strong alternative to Suga having emerged, he appears set to continue despite low approval ratings and the fact that he faces a number of tough political decisions in the coming days and weeks that could lower them even further.
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