Suga’s failure to win Olympics bounce gives hope to rivals

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Japanese politics & policy updates

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s prime minister, had a straightforward plan for the summer: stage the Tokyo Olympics despite the Covid-19 pandemic, fire up the public and ride a wave of medal success to victory in a general election.

But despite an unprecedented 27 gold medals for Japan and a largely trouble-free Games, there has been no sign of an Olympic bounce for the prime minister, thrusting Japan into political turmoil and uncertainty.

Suga’s term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic party expires in September and a general election must be held by November 30, according to the Japanese constitution. But a steady slide in the prime minister’s poll rating has put him at increased risk of a party leadership challenge, according to analysts.

A recent poll for the Asahi newspaper was one of several that showed Suga’s approval rating had dropped below 30 per cent, widely regarded as a danger level. “Within the LDP, that creates a feeling that Suga can’t front an election,” said Atsuo Ito, a political analyst and former party official.

The public appeared to have enjoyed the Olympics: 56 per cent of voters in the Asahi poll said it was right the right decision to go ahead with the Games. But they did not approve of the way Suga forced the event to happen, with 54 per cent saying it was not held in a safe and secure manner.

The Games were held behind closed doors and there were relatively few Covid-19 cases inside the so-called Olympic bubble, the effort to seal off the competitors and officials associated with the event from the wider public. During the period of the Games, however, the number of cases in Japan tripled to more than 15,000 a day.

Yoshihide Suga, right, was not able to attend any events other than the opening and closing ceremonies because of the pandemic, making it difficult to benefit politically © Reuters

“It was a tournament held with unprecedented constraints, but we fulfilled our responsibility as the host country and passed the baton on to Paris,” said Suga in a short video released at the weekend, as he tried to claim credit for pushing ahead. The French capital will host the next Summer Games in 2024.

The lack of spectators made it hard for the prime minister to associate himself with the Games in a positive way. He did not attend any events except for the opening and closing ceremonies and is yet to meet any of Japan’s gold medallists.

“Many people thought the Olympics were great and appreciated it because of the excellent athletes and their performance,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University. “But they did not connect that directly to Mr Suga’s leadership.”

Large majorities disapprove of Suga’s handling of the pandemic and think Japan’s vaccine rollout has been too slow, according to polls.

The question for Suga is what to do now. In the prime minister’s ideal scenario, Ito said, he would call a general election in early September to pre-empt a party leadership contest. But the high level of Covid cases makes that difficult.

Suga’s electoral timeline

july 23-August 8

Tokyo Olympics

August 24-September 5

Tokyo Paralympics

30 September

End of Suga’s term as LDP leader

21 October

Last date to dissolve the Diet’s lower house

30 November

Latest possible date for general election

Sensing weakness, rivals have begun to signal their intentions to stand against Suga for the party leadership, dashing his hopes of an uncontested election.

Sanae Takaichi, who held several cabinet positions under Shinzo Abe, Suga’s predecessor, has declared that she will run.

“I cast my vote [for Suga] because he was the only candidate who pledged to stick with the Abe administration’s policies,” she wrote in a magazine article. “However, the second arrow of Abenomics — an agile fiscal stimulus — has not been carried out correctly.”

The Suga administration’s fiscal policies were piecemeal and overcomplicated, she added.

Takaichi will struggle to reach the 20 parliamentary nominations needed to stand, but more dangerous rivals are weighing their chances, including Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, and ex-defence minister Shigeru Ishiba.

“The real potential leaders such as Kishida and Ishiba are pondering whether they should enter or not,” said Nakabayashi. “That kind of politics starts now.”

One alternative for Suga to an early general election is to try to delay the leadership election because of the pandemic. That would buy time to increase vaccination rates.

The prime minister’s strengths remain the same as when he was elected last September: there is no obvious alternative inside the LDP and Japan’s opposition parties are weak. Even with an unpopular leader, the ruling party is the favourite to win this autumn’s general election.

Nakabayashi said the wild card was a third-party run. “They would have a huge chance because nobody is really supporting the current parties,” she said. “People are so dissatisfied. There is a huge opportunity. Unless that kind of movement occurs, the LDP will do OK.”

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