Japan’s prime minister resigns after failure to control Covid-19

TOKYO — In power for less than a year, Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, announced on Friday that he will not run for re-election for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (PLD), effectively relinquishing control of the country. The decision was made by the premier after his popularity has plummeted in recent months, a reflection of his criticized response to Covid-19, whose cases have quintupled since the start of the Olympic Games in August.

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Suga took office on September 14, 2020, shortly after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, the longest-running premier in Japanese history, resigned for health reasons. The son of a farmer and former Japanese political backstage operator, the prime minister often looked uncomfortable in the spotlight.

His departure, however, raises fears that Japan will return to the period of high turnover at the head of government that preceded Abe’s nearly eight years at the helm of Japan. . The trend, however, is that there are no major political disruptions.

Despite the large exchange of prime ministers, Suga and Abe’s conservative LDP has been in power in Japan since its founding in 1955, with brief breaks in the 1990s and early 2010s. The party will now need to choose a new leader , who will guide him in the general elections scheduled for November 30th.

At a press conference this Friday afternoon (Friday morning, Brazilian time), Suga said he wants to focus the rest of his term on fighting the pandemic, which has infected more than 1.5 million Japanese and killed 16,200 their. Much of the country, including Metropolitan Tokyo, is in a state of emergency due to the high incidence of cases and lack of beds.

Choices

With the dispute for the party leadership set to start on the 17th and end on the 29th, the premier said he realized that he would have to make a choice:

— I considered running, but it would take immense energy to [coordenar] coronavirus response measures concurrently with an election campaign. I cannot do both. I must focus on anti-Covid measures,” said Suga, also affected by a vaccination campaign that is advancing slowly and is well behind most of the richest countries, with only 58% of the total population having taken at least one dose and 47%, completed the vaccination cycle, against more than 60% who have already had two doses in most developed nations.

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Suga’s approval had dropped from 60% at the beginning of the year to less than 30%, raising concerns about how the PLD would perform in the next general election. The pressure on him, however, increased after the Olympics — according to a poll released by the Ipsos Institute in July, 78% of Japanese were against holding the event at that time.

Since then, cases of coronavirus have soared in the country. When the Games began on July 23, Japan saw an average of 3,936 new diagnoses of the disease every day. On the 26th, the country saw its peak of infections throughout the pandemic, with 23,065 registered cases. With the tightening of sanitary measures, new infections have fallen since then, standing today at around 19,400 a day.

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Dispute for succession

For analysts, Suga’s rise and fall is also about timing: when Abe announced his resignation, party leaders did not want a protracted, public dispute, and quickly chose a successor to the job. Suga’s weaknesses, however, weighed on his performance, including his poor communication skills and little flexibility in the midst of the crisis.

Faced with uncertainty, one of his main rivals, former Chancellor Fumio Kishida, announced last month that he would dispute the leadership of the PLD. Since then, Suga has tried to articulate support to remain in the government. Rumors even circulated that he would call an early general election or reformulate his Cabinet to seek support within the party, which never happened.

“We will now enter a new transition period,” political analyst Masatoshi Honda told the Financial Times. “It will take some time before we can see another enduring period ruled with stability by one group or person.

As of the beginning of the week, Kishida was the only declared contender for the LDP leadership, and won the support of the party’s youth wings after declaring that he would fire the acronym’s powerful general secretary, Toshihiro Nikai, if elected. Sanae Takaichi, a former communications minister and one of the few women to make up Abe’s government, has also expressed interest in running for the post.

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Hours after Suga’s announcement, the more progressive Taro Kono also said he was holding consultations with his allies about a possible candidacy. Popular in polls, Kono has already led the Chancellery and Ministry of Defense and is currently in charge of the Ministry of Vaccines in its response to Covid-19.

Regardless of who is chosen, the victory of the PLD in the general elections does not seem to be in check:

“I’m sure a lot of frustrated people really want to vote for another party or representatives who can do better,” Tsuneo Watanabe, a researcher at the Sasakawa Foundation for Peace in Tokyo, told the New York Times. “Right now, however, there is no strong alternative to the PLD, and that is a failure of the Japanese political system,” he said, referring to the main opposition forces, which failed to reorganize after being blamed for mishandling the response. to the Fukushima nuclear disaster 10 years ago.

At the time of the disaster, the center-left opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was in power, which only spent two years at the head of the government. Since then, the acronym has suffered several divisions, further reducing any threat to the PLD’s decades-long dominance in Tokyo.