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JAPAN: Abe’s future could depend on handling of coronavirus outbreak

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  • Growing public anxiety about the potential for a wider outbreak – and doubts about the Abe government’s handling of the crisis – may be weighing on the government’s support.
  • The administration is bracing for more cases, and managing the crisis will dominate the government’s agenda for the foreseeable future.
  • If the number of cases spikes and if the government’s response is seen as ineffectual, Abe’s political future could be in peril. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political standing has suffered a series of blows that could stifle incipient calls for a rule change to enable him to seek another term as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader and render him a lame duck with just over 18 months remaining in his tenure. New public opinion polls suggest that Abe could in particular be vulnerable to growing anxiety about the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has infected 616 people in Japan (542 abroad the cruise liner Diamond Princess moored in Yokohama).

The outbreak’s political impact is multi-faceted. In the immediate term, Abe could suffer from the economic ramifications. After Japan’s economy performed worse than expected in Q4 2019 – the first after the 1 October consumption tax hike – a slowdown caused by the outbreak may be sufficient to trigger a technical recession, tarnishing Abe’s legacy as an economic policymaker. Having already unveiled a significant stimulus package even before the coronavirus outbreak began, it is unclear what more the Abe administration could do to stimulate a slowing economy, particularly if tourist flows remain low and consumption is constrained by prophylactic measures to prevent contagion.

But the outbreak’s significance for Abe could be deeper than the economic challenges. Abe’s durability as prime minister has increasingly depended on the public’s belief that he is uniquely capable of defending Japan from external dangers. But the Abe administration’s struggles to manage the outbreak – particularly the tension between keeping the virus out of Japan entirely while remaining an attractive destination for foreign visitors – could dent its reputation as a safe, competent steward of public safety. Polls show that the public is broadly skeptical of the administration’s handling of the public health threat, particularly after the first death of a Japanese national from the virus last week. Most Japanese are also anxious that the outbreak will continue to spread. The combination of anxiety about the course of the outbreak and doubts about the government’s crisis management could critically undermine Abe’s support if the disease continues to spread in Japan.

Despite the government’s own assessment that the outbreak could widen, it is possible that Abe could shore up his reputation and reverse the impression that his government’s response has been clumsy, reactive, and ineffective. First, if the quarantine of the Diamond Princess is lifted as planned on Wednesday, 19 February and does not result in further contagion within Japan, it could ease some of the critical scrutiny of the administration’s response to the outbreak. It will also free up the government’s attention and public resources to prepare for the possibility of more cases within Japan itself. Second, if the government is able to introduce measures to prepare the healthcare system for new cases – and protect healthcare workers from infection – and indicate its willingness to undertake and explain drastic steps to limit contagion, Abe may once again appear as a responsible leader capable of managing national crises.

His administration has already ramped up its efforts to prevent wider contagion. As a result of the Diamond Princess, the government’s testing capabilities have increased. While not able to impose stringent restrictions on public activity as in China, the Abe government has nevertheless begun encouraging anyone who suspects that they have the virus to remain home to see whether their illness clears before going to hospitals and clinics. The government has also encouraged employers to permit more telecommuting and advised organizations to consider whether to convene large-scale public events. The organizers of the Tokyo Marathon have already cancelled the 1 March race for all but a few hundred elite runners. The outbreak could also lead the LDP and other parties to downsize or postpone their annual conventions in March.

For the foreseeable future, the government’s attention will be largely preoccupied with managing the novel coronavirus and its consequences (although in the Diet opposition parties have continued to press the prime minister on influence peddling allegations). It seems unlikely that Abe, having weathered so many personal and political crises after more than seven years in office, will be forced to resign prematurely, especially since his support within the LDP remains strong and public support for the LDP remains high. Nevertheless, the prime minister faces a perilous situation. If the virus continues to spread – perhaps to the point that the government is forced to reconsider plans for the Tokyo Olympics, which, for now, organizers insist will proceed as planned – and if the public believes that the Abe administration’s communication with the public has been inadequate and its measures ineffectual, his support could wither, particularly if a considerable number of Japanese were to die. At that point, the LDP could begin searching for a replacement who could restore public trust in the government.

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JAPAN: Abe’s future could depend on handling of coronavirus outbreak

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