Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is walking a tightrope as another resurgence of the novel coronavirus in Japan could hit his six-month-old government that is already struggling with falling public support over its virus response and a wining-and-dining scandal involving a ministry he once led.
While citing an easing of the strain on the nation’s medical system as a reason for ending a state of emergency in the Tokyo region on Sunday, Suga has apparently judged that the emergency has lost its edge and the number of infections is unlikely to fall even if the government maintains it.
Japan has been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with what some government officials call a “mock sword” because the latest emergency covering Tokyo and neighboring Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures centered on seemingly tepid measures such as asking restaurants and bars to close early in the evening.
Local authorities have been largely reluctant to impose penalties for noncompliance with antivirus measures, even after the government made legal revisions to introduce fines.
Tokyo has mostly reported around 300 new cases of the coronavirus each day in recent weeks, after seeing more than 2,500 on Jan. 7 when Suga declared the state of emergency for Tokyo and other areas.
“Suga has gambled, thinking the state of emergency won’t improve the situation any further,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University.
Referring to the Olympic torch relay starting March 25, Iwai suggested the Tokyo Games schedule appears to have played a role in Suga’s decision to end the emergency.
“Unless Mr. Suga lifts the state of emergency now, it will raise questions about whether Japan can really host the Olympics and Paralympics this summer,” he said in an interview.
The risk of a coronavirus resurgence is possible as Japan enters the season for cherry blossom-viewing parties, graduation ceremonies and the April start of the new academic and business year.
A team of University of Tokyo researchers estimates daily new cases in the capital could top 1,000 in May if people start to casually get together for celebrations.
To prevent a resurgence, Suga needs to fully convince people to continue following antivirus protocols even after the Sunday end of the state of emergency, according to Iwai, a veteran analyst of Japanese politics.
Some scholars say that if the number of infections rebounds again, it will deal a significant blow to the prime minister and his plan to win a general election that must be held by October.
Public support for the Suga government has been falling due to missteps in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Kyodo News poll showed the approval rating for the Cabinet stood at 38.8% in February, down from 66.4% in September after its launch.
Suga has drawn fire for being slow in halting his signature Go To Travel domestic tourism promotion program. He also apologized to the public after he was found to have dined with people in groups despite the government’s call for people to refrain from doing so as an antivirus step.
On top of that, a recent wining and dining scandal involving senior officials of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, which the prime minister once headed, and his eldest son Seigo Suga, who works at satellite broadcaster Tohokushinsha Film Corp., has cast a shadow over Suga’s government.
The scandal has since widened to Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., with allegations of wining and dining by the telecom giant in return for favors being leveled at Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Ryota Takeda and other ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers.
Suga’s term as LDP president, and therefore prime minister, is due to run out at the end of September and the term for House of Representatives lawmakers is set to expire on Oct. 21, meaning Suga must call an election before then.
Suga also plans to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer, a key event he has repeatedly vowed to follow through on despite persistent public skepticism amid the pandemic.
Japan has only recently started COVID-19 vaccinations of medical workers and the schedule for the rest of the population remains uncertain.
Naoto Nonaka, a professor of comparative politics at Gakushuin University, points out that the Tokyo Games have been a key part of Suga’s strategy to set the stage for dissolving the Lower House for a general election.
“If Mr. Suga can somehow hold the Olympics, he will save face,” Nonaka said. “Even if many voice dissatisfaction about the event due to concerns about the coronavirus, once the games are held, it will lift spirits,” giving a boost to his bid to win the election.
“That’s probably the only scenario on the prime minister’s mind,” he said.
There are also April elections for a House of Representatives seat in Hokkaido and the constituency in Nagano Prefecture for the House of Councillors, as well as a do-over Upper House election for the constituency in Hiroshima Prefecture.
The national elections will be the first under Suga’s government and their outcomes are expected to impact his leadership as LDP candidates will be running against those backed by opposition parties in the two Upper House races.
“The first hurdle will be the April elections,” Nonaka said, adding that if the LDP loses all of them, it will be a major blow to the party and Suga himself.
“When he secured the premiership last September, Mr. Suga may have thought it would be easy to win his next term a year after,” Nonaka said. “But whether he can win a second term is now becoming increasingly uncertain.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.