Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga finds himself struggling to maintain public support for his administration amid coronavirus response blunders as he marks half a year since his coming to power on Tuesday.
Wining-and-dining scandals at the communications ministry, including one involving Suga’s eldest son, are also weighing on the prime minister, who has apparently lost steam after starting out strong with a flurry of implementations of key policies such as the lowering of mobile phone fees.
Sensitive to ratings
“Protecting people’s lives and livelihoods has been our top priority,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s top government spokesman, said at a news conference Friday, reflecting on the six months since the launch of the Suga administration.
Immediately after taking office, the prime minister began working on lowering mobile phone fees, eventually leading Japan’s three major carriers to announce low-cost plans.
He also introduced a set of bills on digital transformation, centered around the establishment of a digital agency that will lead the digitalization of Japan’s administrative services, to the ongoing session of the Diet.
Furthermore, Suga’s government has been considering expanding health insurance coverage to newly include fertility treatment starting in April next year, and has greatly expanded existing subsidy measures to support those receiving such treatment until the insurance coverage expansion is implemented.
In the meantime, the country saw a rapid resurgence of novel coronavirus infections from late last year. The COVID-19 state of emergency that was declared for Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures in January, currently set to run through Sunday, has been extended twice already, with some experts arguing for yet another extension.
Despite a source from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party explaining that Suga has been dealing with the coronavirus crisis day and night, the prime minister has been criticized for being slow in implementing measures.
Among the moves made by Suga that have been slammed as too late was his decision to suspend the Go To Travel tourism promotion scheme, a flagship initiative implemented by the prime minister.
Suga was also forced to apologize for having a steak dinner with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and others while urging the public to avoid dining out with people in large numbers as a measure against the pandemic.
According to a Jiji Press poll, the Suga Cabinet’s approval rate slid from 51.2% in October last year, the prime minister’s first full month on the job, to 34.2% in January this year.
While his approval rate has begun to bottom out thanks to a decrease in COVID-19 cases, it is still far from being on a rebound. According to a source close to Suga, the prime minister is sensitive to changes in weekly Cabinet support ratings.
In a bid to turn the page on his sluggish performance, the prime minister has been meeting regularly with members of his Cabinet at a parliamentary residence in Tokyo.
The meetings mainly involve lawmakers elected in Kanagawa Prefecture, which also includes Suga’s constituency. Called “Team Kanagawa,” the members include Hachiro Okonogi, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, Taro Kono, minister in charge of regulatory reform, and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi.
The prime minister has selected Kono to lead the government’s coronavirus vaccine policy and Koizumi to spearhead measures to fight climate change. This is suggestive of Suga’s aim to win back public support by placing the two most socially influential members of his Cabinet in positions to lead key policies.
However, the state of coronavirus infections continues to remain poor in Japan, and new infection numbers in the Tokyo metropolitan area even suggest the possibility of a rebound. Vaccinations have only recently begun for medical workers, with no clear path seen for the start of vaccinations for the general public.
Meanwhile, the communications ministry has been embroiled in a dining scandal not only with Tohokushinsha Film Corp., which employs Suga’s son, but also with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.
With LDP lawmakers also coming under fire for taking part in the dinners, the allegations raised so far seem to be only the tip of the iceberg.
These issues come ahead of the April by-elections for an electoral district in Hokkaido for the House of Representatives and the constituency in Nagano Prefecture for the House of Councilors, as well as a do-over election for the Upper House’s constituency in Hiroshima Prefecture in the same month.
They will be the first national elections under Suga’s watch, and their results are expected to impact the momentum of his administration.
Whether Japan will be able to host the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer despite the novel coronavirus crisis is also seen as a make-or-break issue for the prime minister.
The terms of the current members of the Lower House are set to expire in October this year. Many in the government and ruling parties believe that the prime minister will dissolve the lower chamber and trigger a general election in autumn, but some suspect that he may call a snap election before the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
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