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Losses in three special elections for parliamentary seats in a single day have left Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in search of a way to quickly boost support or risk joining a long list of short-serving prime ministers.

Support for Suga, who succeeded his long-time boss, Shinzo Abe, last year, has been dragged down by corruption scandals and a sluggish COVID-19 response. The triple loss in the weekend elections came on the same day that a new virus emergency was imposed on about a quarter of the population, adding to Suga’s woes with the clock ticking for a general election that must be held within six months.

The Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition is unlikely to lose control of the government, given weak public support for opposition parties, meaning the current agenda of ultraloose monetary policy and close ties with the U.S. will probably remain. Suga, however, could be replaced as leader after only a year in office if he leads his party to a substantially reduced majority.

“It will be the election that decides what happens thereafter,” said Steven Reed, a professor emeritus of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo. The general election was most likely to come in September, before the LDP leadership election the same month, Reed said, adding that “Suga wants to go into the party leadership poll as the incumbent.”

There is little lined up that may improve Suga’s fortunes in the immediate future. The emergency declaration for Tokyo, Osaka and two prefectures could delay an economic recovery, with the government instructing bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol, and seeking to ban fans from major sporting events.

Virus cases are at record highs in Osaka and infection numbers in Tokyo have risen to levels not seen since late January. Meanwhile, the vaccine rollout has reached about 1% of the population. The world’s third-largest economy has inoculated a smaller percentage of its population than Myanmar, a country possibly on the brink of a civil war after the military staged a coup more than two months ago.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologizes for issuing the third coronavirus state of emergency during a news conference at the Prime Minister's Office on Friday. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologizes for issuing the third coronavirus state of emergency during a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office on Friday. | POOL / VIA KYODO

While the support rate for the government has steadied at around 40%, Suga isn’t the public’s top pick to be the next prime minister. He ranked sixth at 4% in a survey by the Nikkei newspaper, while Taro Kono, the minister Suga appointed to run the vaccine program, is the top choice at 24%. The poll also showed that about 80% of respondents didn’t think the vaccination program was going well.

Suga’s plans to hold the Tokyo Olympics from July 23 are unpopular with the public and look set to fall far short of his hopes that they would prove that the world has defeated the coronavirus. Some fear the international sports spectacular could even become a superspreader event, but canceling the games less than three months before they are due to start would also be fraught with difficulty.

His pledge to focus on battling the pandemic means Suga looks set to delay the election until close to the end of the Lower House term in October — a situation that has worked out poorly for previous prime ministers.

While Japan has kept COVID-19 infections and deaths at much lower levels than in much of Europe and the U.S., it reached the grim milestone of 10,000 deaths Monday. This compares unfavorably with neighbors like Taiwan, where only 12 have died, and Vietnam, with 35 deaths. The Nikkei survey found about two-thirds of respondents disapproved of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The government is planning large vaccination centers in Tokyo and Osaka, reports said, to try to speed up a process that has been farmed out to approximately 1,700 local governments.

After the special election results, Suga told reporters he wanted to press ahead with the country’s immunization program.

“I will accept the verdict of the people with humility,” Suga told reporters Monday. “After analyzing the situation in the regions, I will correct what needs to be corrected.”

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