Tokyo, Japan – With Sunday’s closing ceremony calling time on the postponed pandemic-hit Tokyo Olympics, all eyes in Japan are now on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of a general election that must be held by late October.
The prime minister has already attracted criticism for his handling of the event. Many felt that he had allowed himself – and by extension, the wider population – to fall victim to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) pressure to hold the games, despite Tokyo entering a fourth state of emergency due to COVID-19 only two weeks before the opening ceremony.
By the start of the event, held a year later because of coronavirus, only 32 percent of the general population had received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Critics said that Suga, whose popularity has dropped because of his handling of the outbreak, was gambling with public health in anticipation of a ratings boost – should the nation’s athletes do well and the Games conclude without a significant hitch.
Japan’s Olympians performed beyond expectations, bringing home 58 medals – 27 of them gold – in a performance unmatched in the nation’s history. Yet with coronavirus cases in the capital rising rapidly, there is little sense that their achievements will rub off on the prime minister.
“Suga is desperately trying to bask in the reflected glory of the Japanese haul of medals but can`t escape the spike in COVID-19 cases,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
“The government maintains there is no connection between the Games and the surge. But the public sees a botched vaccine rollout as his fault. Going ahead with the Olympics against the advice of his medical advisers while declaring a national emergency sends a mixed message.”
Experts predict there may be as many as 10,000 new cases per day in the capital over the next two weeks. Official policy is now focused on amplifying the dangers of the virus among younger age groups where infections are on the rise.
The highly contagious Delta variant now accounts for 90 percent of new cases in Tokyo. Detection of at least one instance of the Lambda variant has added to the city-wide mixture of post-celebratory elation and anxiety.
The staging of the Paralympics, which are due to begin on August 24, further complicates the government’s mixed messages.
Despite daily coronavirus cases in host city Tokyo exceeding the 5,000 mark for the first time on August 5, Suga said at a news conference a day later that spectators may yet be admitted.
“In that sense, Suga has triggered public distrust and appears incompetent, eager to scapegoat young people for being irresponsible as a way to deflect attention away from his failures,” Kingston said. “The problem is compounded by his wooden press conferences where he conveys zero empathy and just gives boilerplate comments that make him look like he is in over his head.”
Potential leadership challenge
An Asahi poll at the weekend put the prime minister’s approval rating at 28 percent, below the 30 percent mark generally considered the “point of no return”. Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, was rare among Japanese prime ministers because he survived eight years in office, making him the nation’s longest-serving leader. Most others have tended to last only a couple of years.
With Suga’s term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over on September 30, analysts say he may well find himself subject to a challenge from within the party. Many younger legislators at the receiving end of the public’s discontent due to the administration’s handling of the health crisis have lost faith in the leadership.
“It is increasingly likely Suga will not be able to get re-elected if a serious rival emerges since he has no significant power base of his own in the party,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of Comparative Politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “In that case, he will be replaced by a new leader before the general election takes place later in the fall.’
Last week, former Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, threw her hat into the ring as a potential replacement. However, the need to secure backing from 20 LDP legislators – traditionally a stumbling block for women in the male-dominated party – could limit her chances of success.
Elsewhere, polling by the Yomiuri Shinbun revealed that 20 percent of respondents believe vaccine tsar Taro Kono, a former foreign minister, will get the top job next. But Suga’s astute decision to hand Kono the contentious role of managing the phlegmatic vaccine scheme could hinder his chances this time around.
Should Suga hold off his opponents within the party before the general election, voters will go to the polls short on alternatives.
Despite wavering LDP support and Suga’s perceived inability to handle the escalating coronavirus situation, the country’s main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), has yet to make any significant gains.
This is in part due to internal conflicts. The party recently became embroiled in a damaging dispute when CDP legislator, Hiranao Honda, resigned after making inappropriate comments about the legal age of consent.
Elsewhere, the party has consistently struggled to shrug off accusations it is merely a revamped version of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
The DPJ briefly seized power from the LDP in 2009 amid a similar mood of discontent. This was one of only two occasions when the LDP has relinquished control of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, since the party’s formation in 1955.
The DPJ then imploded because of internal infighting and the fallout from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, leading to a landslide loss at the 2012 election.
Perhaps of greatest concern for the CDP, however, is the uneasy alliance it has forged with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP).
The JCP is keen to implement an “opposition parties-united administration” policy after cooperation with other opposition groups led to gains in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections held in July.
Pandemic increases unpredictability
But the two parties remain leagues apart on crucial issues such as the US-Japan alliance and the monarchy. Sophia University’s Nakano believes a deal will, however, prove possible, leaving the CDP “poised to win more seats at the election, though perhaps not enough to win power”.
The sense that the opposition lacks cohesion could well play into Suga’s hands.
“In Japan’s lower house elections, a fragmented opposition tends to tilt the scales in favour of the LDP,” said Phillip Lipscy, the chair in Japanese politics and global affairs at the University of Toronto.
The prevailing sense that the LDP is simply unassailable leads to a form of Hobson’s Choice for the nation’s voters: either plump for an uninspiring incumbent who, if nothing else, is a known commodity; or look elsewhere, often towards greater factionalism and division.
“Disillusionment with both the LDP and opposition parties is nothing new in Japan,” Lipscy continued. “It is one of the reasons why so many Japanese voters express support for no party in public opinion polls [approximately 42 percent].”
Encouraging for those looking for change in the upcoming elections, however, is the level of unpredictability introduced by the pandemic.
Voters are angry not only at the government’s handling of COVID-19 but at their role as guinea pigs in the global experiment of the combined Olympic and Paralympic games.
“If voters remain apathetic, the LDP and coalition partner Komei tend to do well since they have fairly reliable core support bases,” Lipscy said. However, previously non-affiliated “floating voters” can, he says, “swing election outcomes dramatically if they become excited and turn out in large numbers”.