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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday emphasized it was his desire to focus on the country’s pandemic response, and not a political predicament, that led him to abandon his re-election bid for Liberal Democratic Party president.

In his first formal news conference since his stunning announcement, the prime minister stressed that it was his realization that the coronavirus state of emergency could not be lifted by Sunday as scheduled that prompted him to quit the party’s leadership race.

His responsibility as prime minister, Suga said, should be to put “a process in motion to overcome this crisis and restore security and liveliness in our daily lives.”

“It has been a year since I became the prime minister, and I have spent the entire time fighting the coronavirus,” Suga said. “It will take a tremendous amount of energy to fight for the LDP presidential election while dealing with the coronavirus response and carrying out my official duties.”

In what was likely one of his final opportunities to address the public directly as prime minister, the outgoing leader shared some of his personal feelings and admitted there was room for improvement in some aspects of his administration’s pandemic response.

On the coronavirus response, Suga boasted that his administration’s efforts to speed up vaccines were successful but reflected that his administration should have done to secure hospital beds for the infected and procure necessary medical resources.

In a rare moment of public reflection, Suga mentioned feeling anxious whenever he heard an ambulance siren, worrying that patients may not be able to receive proper care. He also expressed concern for people in the restaurant and tourism industries that were hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga leaves after a news conference at his office in Tokyo on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga leaves after a news conference at his office in Tokyo on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

Nevertheless, Suga wrapped up the news conference in just under an hour, leaving some questions from reports unasked, with journalists shouting at him to take more questions as he stepped down from the lectern and walked away.

The prime minister, who took over from Shinzo Abe last September, shocked the nation and even his own party last week when he quit the LDP presidential race. Suga was serving what remained of Abe’s term as party chief and his decision to step aside has effectively rendered him a caretaker prime minister.

The public has become increasingly frustrated with the Suga administration’s pandemic measures and its obstinate desire to proceed with the Tokyo Games. The Cabinet’s approval ratings have dwindled to 30% range in multiple polls, half the level seen when he took office last September.

On Thursday, he affirmed his choice to not dissolve the Lower House while his approval rating was high, revealing that even though he was advised to call a snap election, he was determined to work on his policy agenda.

Leading up to his exit from the race, Suga had attempted to reshuffle the party’s executive lineup and even considered calling a snap Lower House election, moves denounced by his fellow LDP lawmakers as selfish, desperate attempts to cling to power.

During the news conference, he acknowledged he had explored various options, including a snap election, but instead prioritized the coronavirus response.

Now serving as a lame-duck prime minister, Suga has refused to reveal where his support lies in the upcoming leadership election and said he wants to wait until the campaign kicks off on Sept. 17 to weigh in. However, he is believed to be considering endorsing Taro Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reforms and the vaccine rollout. Kono will be announcing his bid for the leadership contest officially Friday afternoon.

“I think it’s good to have a variety of people running for the leadership contest and expressing their ideas,” Suga said.

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