Japan: Will Suga Remain Prime Minister After September?

Japan: Will Suga Remain Prime Minister After September?

After Abe Shinzo stepped down as Japan’s Prime Minister in late August last year, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide emerged as the man to succeed him, through the support of high ranking Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) figures including Abe himself and the party’s secretary-general Nikai Toshihiro. Though Suga began his premiership with reasonable approval ratings, public support has since plummeted. With an LDP leadership contest scheduled for September 2021, the possibility exists that Suga will not be in the top seat by that point this year. How likely is such an outcome, and what factors are likely to contribute?

Declining Popularity

Suga enjoyed comfortable public approval ratings shortly after the formation of his Cabinet in September 2020, with one poll gauging public support at around 74%. Since then, however, the public’s opinion of his administration has nosedived. A 16th January opinion survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun found that only 33% of respondents supported Suga, down 7 points from a previous survey in December. This does not bode well for Suga when keeping in mind that Abe’s popular support was approximately 34% shortly before he announced his resignation. Of course, Abe’s resignation was not entirely the cause of faltering public support, but it certainly suggests that Suga is likely to face a challenge in maintaining the support of both the public and his party.

The reasons for Suga’s declining popularity are numerous. Most importantly, the public has become increasingly dissatisfied with the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly following the onset of a new wave of infections in recent months. For example, the Prime Minister has been critiqued for placing the country’s economic recovery over preventing the spread of the virus, such as by vacillating over the suspension of the ‘Go To Travel’ campaign which was devised to promote regional tourism. Beyond his policies towards the pandemic, Suga‘s declining popularity is not helped by his broader public image. He has been described on numerous occasions as ‘monotone’ or ‘boring’, with impressions of him as generally a lesser statesman than his predecessor. These impressions are borne out by a 15th January opinion poll where 22.6% of those who expressed their displeasure with the government’s COVID-19 response (61.4% of respondents) critiqued Suga for ‘having no leadership’.

The Olympic Factor

With Suga’s approval rating approaching the gutter, he is likely to need to take significant steps or get particularly lucky in order to salvage his ratings and boost his chances in this year’s leadership election. The Olympics, which the government is currently planning to hold this year, may be one opportunity for Suga to improve his position.

 In a best case scenario where Japan is able to host the Olympics this summer without many countries pulling out and high tourist numbers, the economic and public relations boost this might have would help to shore up Suga’s position. However, this appears unlikely. Even if the Olympics is not postponed or cancelled this year, it is probable that restrictions and continuing concern over COVID-19 will almost certainly lead to a more subdued event. In a more negative scenario, a spike in infections attributed to going ahead with the Olympics would likely undermine Suga’s popularity further.

So Long Suga?

Suga’s level of public support is important to keep in mind when gauging the chance that he will retain his position after the LDP’s leadership election in September. This is because Suga, unlike other politicians such as Ishiba Shigeru and Kishida Fumio who are likely to contest the top job, does not belong to a particular LDP party faction. Without being part of a faction Suga is far less able to rely on other party members to provide him with solid electoral backing; instead, he needs public support and results to prove his worth to the party. The party will certainly need convincing because just one month later, in October, Japan is scheduled to have a general election. 

Consequently, the LDP will likely be eager to have a leader which they feel can garner public support in order to maximise their chances in the Lower House election and avoid the possibility of a significant political loss comparable to that which occurred in 2009. 2009 was significant as the first time since the LDP’s founding in 1955 that it lost its parliamentary majority and political control. There are some loose parallels between the situation then and the LDP’s current situation, notably in the low approval rating of then-PM Asō Tarō and Suga now. 

If the Suga administration’s situation worsens as a result of the deterioration of the COVID-19 situation or the Olympics, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that Suga will be voted out as party leader in order to minimise the risk of a political loss in the general election. This is not to suggest, however, that we are likely to see a repeat of 2009’s momentous election result. In a January public opinion survey 40% of those polled stated that they were intending to vote for the LDP in the general election; the party with the next closest level of support was the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) with 13%.

So What?

Suga leaving office in September would be significant in potentially signalling a return to the ‘revolving door’ style of Japanese politics which preceded Abe’s second term in 2012; before then, Japan went through 6 Prime Ministers in as many years. Returning to this disjointed trend of political leadership is not likely to help Japan over the coming decades. On the international stage an ever-changing leadership will make building a consistent and co-ordinated Japanese foreign policy harder, increasingly important at a time of growing Chinese activity in the Asia-Pacific region. Without a PM who can hold power, it will be difficult for Japan to forge and maintain important connections like Abe did with Trump in the US and Modi in India. 

The situation for Suga does not look good; the larger concern is that the next won’t fare much better.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Samuel Arnold-Parra

Samuel graduated from LSE in 2020 with a degree in International Relations and History. Since graduating, he has been building up experience in research and analysis. Currently, he is conducting voluntary research on Japanese national and sub-national responses to COVID-19. He is eager to use his skills in Spanish and Japanese to contribute valuable insights focusing on Japan and Latin America.