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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is throwing in the towel.

In a shock move, Suga said Friday that he will not stand in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party presidential race — thereby bringing his term as prime minister to an unexpectedly early end.

The move will inevitably create a temporary political vacuum amid the pandemic and complicate the course of the party’s leadership contest.

Speaking at the LDP’s extraordinary executive board meeting held shortly before noon at the party’s headquarters, Suga said he will not run because he intends “to focus on coronavirus measures.” He will fulfill the remainder of his term as the party’s president — and prime minister — which runs through Sept. 30.

“In the one year since I became the prime minister, I’ve been doing my utmost to tackle various issues, especially on coronavirus measures,” Suga told reporters. “The campaign for the LDP presidential election officially kicks off on the 17th, but I realized it would take up enormous energy working on the coronavirus measures and campaigning — it’s impossible to do both.

“I’ve made a decision to concentrate on preventing the virus from spreading further, the promise I’ve made to the people repeatedly.”

He added he will hold a news conference next week to explain his decision and that he will fulfill his duty as the prime minister to “protect the lives and the livelihoods of the people.” He did not take follow-up questions.

The announcement came after the prime minister had been thrust into a corner amid evaporating public and party support. In multiple polls, his Cabinet’s approval rating has slumped into the 30% range — treacherous territory in terms of political survival. The LDP has lost multiple by-elections and regional races during Suga’s tenure, including in the city of Yokohama, where the prime minister’s district is located. The public has become increasingly frustrated at his administration’s pandemic measures and its obstinate desire to proceed with the Tokyo Games.

Eager to turn the situation around, Suga had prepared to reshuffle all four critical party executive posts and some Cabinet members, installing popular faces in a bid to boost himself and the party ahead of the leadership vote and the upcoming general election.

On Friday, Suga said he would not be proceeding with the party executive shakeup. The LDP presidential election will go ahead as scheduled on Sept. 29.

“Frankly, I’m quite surprised, but this is the party chief’s decision, which I believe was made after thinking hard, so I thought it would not be appropriate to push back against his decision at the meeting,” said Toshihiro Nikai, the party’s secretary-general, whom Suga was set to remove next week. “We’ll accept the party chief’s decision and focus on managing the party.”

Suga’s departure could revive Japan’s habit of churning through prime ministers, bringing uncertainty and instability that could affect the nation’s diplomatic relations.

“Suga was not necessarily passionate about diplomacy, but it might give an impression that Japan has entered a phase of a revolving-door prime ministership,” said Mie Oba, a professor of international politics in the Asia-Pacific region at Kanagawa University.

Leading up to Friday, some LDP lawmakers had been openly criticizing Suga’s move to change the party’s lineup, saying this was prioritizing popularity over concentrating on the coronavirus response.

Suga further enraged party members this week when media reports surfaced that he was considering calling a snap election in mid-September. Such a move would have postponed the party presidential vote, and as such it raised speculation that he wanted to avoid a face-off with his challengers.

Akira Amari, a former trade minister who belongs to the LDP faction led by Taro Aso and is close to Shinzo Abe, criticized Suga’s bid to change the lineup before the leadership election. In a radio interview aired Friday morning, he argued that whoever wins the race should decide on the executive.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga leaves the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo on Thursday after holding talks with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai. | KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga leaves the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo on Thursday after holding talks with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai. | KYODO

Unlike last year, when Suga was elected to be the party leader, the party’s mainstream factions were hesitant about collectively throwing their weight behind his re-election bid. Nonetheless, prominent faction leaders such as Nikai, Nobuteru Ishihara and Abe, a de facto leader of the party’s largest group, had announced their support for Suga.

However, LDP lawmakers, especially those in districts where their support base is weak, were reluctant to follow their faction leaders’ moves and align themselves with Suga.

“I think as his approval ratings fell and the anxiety within the LDP became increasingly vocal, (Suga not running) was always a possibility,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress. “But he essentially settled things by calling for a change of leadership team, which turned into a confidence vote — and the party expressed no confidence in his leadership.”

On Thursday evening, Suga made a surprise visit to the LDP headquarters to meet with Nikai. The abruptness of the meeting with the secretary-general, reminiscent of what Abe did roughly a year ago to convey his intention to resign, touched off speculation that Suga was no longer running in the party leadership contest. But at that time, Suga confided in Nikai his determination to throw his hat into the ring.

“The prime minister was saying he would be fighting fair and square,” a senior administration official close to the prime minister said Thursday.

Nikai told reporters on Friday that he first heard of Suga’s intention not to run in a brief meeting before the extraordinary executive board meeting. The secretary-general said Suga did not nominate a successor, while Nikai himself refused to name who he would be supporting.

Asked whether declining public support and growing discord within the party were related to Suga’s decision not to seek re-election, Nikai shot down that idea.

“The prime minister’s approval ratings are not the only thing that decides the outcome of an election,” Nikai said. “If young lawmakers are making such a fuss, they should focus on their own election.”

The focus in Nagatacho, Japan’s political heart, is beginning to shift to the nature of the leadership election. So far, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi have expressed their intention to run for the presidency. However, since Suga will not be running, Cabinet members may now be tempted to take part.

Some names being bandied about as potential contenders include former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi. Multiple media outlets have reported that vaccine czar Taro Kono has decided to run for the election.

“I’d like to make my decision after talking with senior and my fellow lawmakers,” Kono said.

In a Nikkei poll last week asking who should be the next party leader, Kono and Ishiba emerged as the joint favorite for all respondents, with each receiving 16% support. Kishida obtained 13%, while Suga was in fourth place with 11%.

Among LDP supporters, Suga was the top pick with 20%, followed by Kono with 18% and Kishida with 14%. Koizumi earned 9% support from the all respondents and 8% from LDP supporters.

Koizumi met with Suga on Friday afternoon at the Prime Minister’s Office, the fifth consecutive day this week. He did not answer a reporter’s question as to whether he would be running for the LDP leadership.

“I’d like to continue working as environment minister as part of the Suga Cabinet until the end,” Koizumi told reporters with tears in his eyes. “The prime minister has been under constant criticism, but I believe there has been no administration that has worked as hard as this one. I don’t believe there is a prime minister who has accomplished as much in a year as him.”

Koizumi also revealed that he had been advising Suga that he might be better off not running in order to protect his legacy as prime minister, instead of entering a race and facing an uphill battle.

Opposition party leaders denounced Suga’s surprise decision. Politically, the opposition camp had hoped that an unpopular Suga would not quit, so that they would have a better chance of gaining seats in the general election.

“As the government has to deal with an explosive surge in coronavirus infections, (his decision) is irresponsible,” said Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. “The LDP is not qualified to govern.”


Key moments in Suga’s tenure 

Sept. 16, 2020

Yoshihide Suga becomes the country’s 99th prime minister, following the end of the administration led by Shinzo Abe — the longest in Japanese history.

Oct. 26

Suga vows that Japan will achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 on the heels of climate pledges from China and the United States.

Jan. 7, 2021

Suga issues a state of emergency covering Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures — the second to have been declared since the coronavirus pandemic began and the first by the Suga administration.

April 16

Suga holds summit talks with U.S. President Joe Biden, the latter’s first in-person meeting with a foreign leader as president. In the joint statement, the two governments for the first time explicitly identified China as the pre-eminent challenge facing their alliance.

May 22

The Suga Cabinet’s approval rating falls to a record low of 31% in a Mainichi Shimbun poll.

June 9

Suga sets a target of completing COVID-19 vaccinations between October and November for all residents wishing to receive one.

June 11-13

Suga attends the Group of Seven summit in Britain.

Aug. 22

In a stunning setback for Suga on his political home turf, an opposition party-backed candidate wins the Yokohama mayoral election, defeating the contender endorsed by the prime minister.

Sept. 1

The Digital Agency kicks off operations as a key part of Suga’s administrative reform agenda.

Timeline compiled by staff writer Osamu Tsukimori. 

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