- The Abe cabinet submitted legislation to the Diet that will enable the government to declare a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Opposition parties have objections but will not block the emergency legislation’s swift passage.
- Public support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to combat the outbreak may be improving, limiting the risks to his premiership.
On Tuesday, 10 March, the Abe cabinet approved a bill to revise the 2013 pandemic influenza law that will give the administration new powers to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, including the power to declare a state of emergency. While the legislation will not necessarily have an immediate impact on the government’s fight against the outbreak, it is politically useful for the prime minister, showing that he is not merely reacting to events while muting opposition criticism, as the opposition parties agreed not to block the bill’s swift passage. The upshot is that Abe’s political standing has stabilized after the initial wave of criticism during the first weeks of the outbreak.
Opposition seeks limits on emergency powers
The prime minister’s power to declare a state of emergency will not be unlimited. He will first have to consult with a panel of experts, who will determine whether the situation is sufficiently severe to justify a declaration. The prime minister will then have to designate particular areas and specify a time frame. As previously discussed, if the government were to declare a state of emergency, prefectural governors would have substantially greater power to impose “social distancing” on target populations. They could tell residents to stay inside; impose orders to close schools, theaters, and other facilities entirely; and requisition medical supplies and facilities.
Abe has argued that these measures are necessary to prepare for a “worst-case scenario” of a widespread outbreak that swept across much of the country and sought to reassure opposition parties that he would consider the impact on individual rights carefully before exercising these powers. He added that he does not believe that the situation at present would require using these new provisions.
Opposition parties, led by the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), continue to have misgivings about the legislation even as they have consented to moving it through the Diet by the end of the week. Despite the rapid timetable, they are seeking changes to the bill that would give the legislature a more significant role in overseeing the emergency process. Opposition lawmakers want to include clauses that would require the government to give prior notification to the Diet and would give the Diet the power to rescind an emergency declaration. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), however, is resisting calls for revisions and negotiations with opposition parties have focused on including these demands in a supplemental resolution that would be formally non-binding but which would be difficult in practice for the government to disregard. Finally, the COVID-19-related provisions will also have a sunset clause, expiring two years after coming into effect.
New loans for business, with fiscal stimulus to come?
Even as the Diet debates the new emergency legislation, the Abe government has continued to encourage the public to exercise restraint in convening large-scale public events. Following the advice of his expert advisory panel, on Tuesday Abe called on the public to refrain from convening large gathering for another ten days, at least through 19 March. Japan’s schools have also almost entirely complied with Abe’s request for school closures, according to Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda.
Also on Tuesday, the administration announced a new set of economic policies geared towards individuals and small businesses affected by school closures and the slowdown in economic activity. The government has pledged up to JPY 1.6tn (USD 15.2bn) in loans and credit guarantees from public financial institutions. The program will include up to JPY 500bn (USD 4.74bn) in interest-free loans for small and medium-sized enterprises whose sales have fallen by at least 15% for small businesses and 20% for medium-sized businesses. Other businesses suffering smaller losses will still have access to low-interest loans. A separate program, also totaling JPY 500bn (USD 4.74bn), will offer loans to help larger companies cope with supply chain disruptions. Meanwhile, the LDP has stepped up calls for a “drastic” supplemental budget that would be passed soon after the start of the fiscal year on 1 April, with both LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and LDP Upper House Secretary-General Hiroshige Seko calling upon the government to move quickly with a supplemental budget, although the administration itself has not begun outlining a new fiscal package.
Political risk to Abe abates
The Abe government’s latest announcements come against the backdrop of a change in Abe’s political fortunes. The government’s approval ratings have stabilized in the month’s first opinion polls. While the public remains divided on Abe’s handling of the outbreak, support has ticked up and polls show that citizens are broadly understanding of the prime minister’s call for school closures. Abe’s gamble on school closures – which he admitted was a “political decision” coming after he faced criticism for lackluster leadership as the disease spread – appears to have largely paid off, as he no longer appears to be out of touch or overwhelmed by the crisis. His appeal to opposition parties to cooperate on emergency legislation, meanwhile, has limited the opposition’s ability to criticize his handling of the crisis. Abe may also be helped by the impression that Japan still has recorded large numbers of new cases, although this may be an artifact of the relatively low number of tests that have been conducted. The prime minister is not entirely out of political danger – a sharp increase in new cases or deaths would likely spark a new round of criticism of his leadership – but his premiership is more secure relative to February.