September 4, 2021 at 16:30 JST
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologizes for the second retraction of a government COVID-19-related proposal while meeting with reporters on July 14. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
Having lost the public’s trust over his handling of the pandemic and the support of many members of his own Liberal Democratic Party, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga decided to call it a day.
Suga deserves to be severely criticized for abandoning his responsibility to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people at a time of explosive growth in COVID-19 cases, a situation likened by health experts to a natural disaster that threatens to overwhelm the health care system.
Suga announced Sept. 3 that he will not run for the LDP’s presidential election slated for late September and step down as prime minister when the party’s new leader is elected. Just a year ago this month, Suga succeeded Shinzo Abe, who was in power for seven years and eight months, and formed an administration that enjoyed high opinion poll ratings of around 65 percent. But he is leaving office only after one year in office marked by poor leadership performance.
BOTCHED BID TO STAY IN POWER
Suga did not even hold a news conference to announce his out-of-the-blue decision to resign. He only spoke with reporters briefly about his resignation and refused to take questions.
Suga cited the need to concentrate on dealing with the pandemic as his reason for dropping out of the leadership race, saying he could not manage an election campaign while tackling this formidable challenge. This explanation is not credible.
As the outlook for his re-election became increasingly uncertain, Suga plotted a couple of political moves to turn the tables, including unseemly plans to reshuffle the party leadership just before his term as party president expires and dissolve the Lower House for a snap election to delay the party poll. But these plans triggered a massive backlash within the party, driving him into a hopeless position.
His desperate political maneuvering to be re-elected belied afresh his promise to place top policy priority on wrestling with the public health crisis.
Suga took office last autumn just after the nation rode out a second wave of infections without the government having had to resort to declaring a state of emergency. That was when he should have taken a series of steps to prepare the nation for an anticipated third wave in winter by beefing up the health care system’s capabilities to treat COVID-19 patients and test the people for the virus. Instead, Suga was determined to reopen the economy quickly and insisted on continuing the controversial “Go To Travel” subsidies program to support the battered tourist industry. As a result, policy efforts to contain the virus were put on the back burner.
Then he forged ahead with the Tokyo Olympics, disregarding warnings from experts and opposition from some Cabinet members. This decision was seen as driven by his desire to ensure his uncontested election to a second term as LDP president. Under this scenario, Suga would call a snap election while public euphoria was at its height after the success of the massive sporting event and secure a solid electoral victory for the ruling party.
But public support for his Cabinet continued to sag. The LDP suffered a damaging defeat in both the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election and the mayoral poll in Yokohama, Suga’s political home turf. The sinking poll ratings and disastrous election outcomes were undoubtedly manifestations of public frustration over Suga’s pursuit of political gains and failed policy efforts to bring the pandemic under control based on his unfounded optimism.
LIMITS OF SUGA’S POLITICAL APPROACH
It is time to evaluate the way Suga went about his job.
An early indication of his political approach was his contentious decision immediately after he took office to reject six nominees to the Science Council of Japan. His decision to block the appointments of academics who had been critical of the government was made without a convincing explanation.
Suga seemed to have acquired some of the unsavory elements of Abe’s political disposition while he served as his chief Cabinet secretary. Like his former boss, Suga displayed a tendency to ruthlessly distinguish friends from foes, used his power to control personnel affairs to enforce loyalty, refused to give straightforward answers to sensitive questions, abrogated his responsibility to explain his policy decisions and actions to the people and avoided Diet debate as much as possible.
Suga’s own personal qualities made things worse. He took a top-down decision-making approach to policy issues without carefully weighing the opinions of a wide range of advisers. He rejected dissenting voices and focused on data convenient for his agenda.
Strong leadership in a prime minister obviously can work well in certain circumstances. But Suga’s approach backfired, not least in his handling of the pandemic.
He adopted expert opinions based on science only when he liked what he heard and ignored proposals not to his liking. Bureaucrats avoided voicing disagreement with Suga as they tried to accommodate the assumed wishes and intentions of the powers that be. They simply waited for instructions from higher-ups. The Suga administration failed to hold effective dialogue with prefectural governors and industry organizations responsible for planning and implementing specific measures to deal with the pandemic.
Broad public support and understanding are vital in such a crisis as Japan lacks the legal means to enforce harsh measures. Much depends on the voluntary cooperation of the public. But Suga did a poor job sending out effective messages about his policy that could resonate with the public
Naturally, voters became increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Suga remaining in power. Growing public frustration with his policy responses to the pandemic and distrust of his leadership effectively decimated his chances of re-election.
LDP SHARES BLAME FOR SITUATION
Suga’s withdrawal from the LDP leadership contest has radically changed the political landscape of the election to effectively choose Japan’s next leader. It was shaping up as a one-on-one battle between Suga and Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister and LDP policy chief. But Suga’s surprise announcement has triggered a flurry of moves among potential candidates, including Taro Kono, the state minister in charge of administrative reform who also coordinates the central government effort in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Kono stated immediately after Suga's announcement that he may run. The election may turn out to be a contest involving a broad field of candidates.
It should be first pointed out, however, that the LDP, which elected Suga as its head and supported his administration for a year, shares the blame for the current dire situation.
In last year’s LDP presidential election, held hastily following Abe’s abrupt decision to step down, neither card-carrying members nor registered supporters of the party were allowed to cast ballots. All major LDP factions flocked to Suga’s campaign. They only wanted to climb on the bandwagon and made no serious efforts to assess Suga’s leadership qualities or political vision or policy agenda. The party is now paying a price for this.
This LDP presidential election should not be the simple process of replacing an unpopular prime minister with a politician who can bolster the ruling party’s chances of victory in the upcoming Lower House election as its public face.
The process should start with a serious postmortem of the Suga administration’s dismal performance over the past year. Then, the ruling party should engage in sincere policy debate to ensure a better future for the nation. To regain public trust in politics, the LDP also needs to uncover the facts about political scandals that plagued the previous Abe administration, including those concerning annual tax-funded cherry blossom viewing parties hosted by Abe and two school operators linked directly or indirectly to Abe, Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution.
At the same time, the pandemic continues to ravage the nation. The government and the LDP must make an all-out effort to ensure timely responses to the crisis.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 4
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