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November 30, 2020

Asia

JAPAN: Third wave scrambles Suga’s political calculations

BY Tobias Harris

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( 5 mins)
  • Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government has continued to seek a balance between infection control and support for economic recovery even as new Covid-19 cases have surged and hospitalization rates have climbed.
  • Public disapproval of Suga’s handling of the pandemic may be growing and he has shelved plans for a snap election in early 2021 – but fiscal stimulus and the prospect of a vaccine could limit some of the political danger posed by the third wave.

In a plenary meeting of the upper house of the Diet on Monday, 30 November, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to “take necessary measures without hesitation” to protect lives and livelihoods amidst the still-growing third wave of Covid-19. However, despite the prime minister’s rhetoric, his administration has not fundamentally altered its approach, opting to proceed cautiously and incrementally with new public health measures in order to limit their economic impact.

Most notably, the Suga government is still not considering another state of emergency declaration. Meanwhile, Suga’s 21 November announcement that the government would suspend some subsidies for travel and dining out as part of the “Go To” programs has spurred a debate over how subsidies should be suspended – and how individuals and businesses facing cancellation fees should be compensated – instead of a debate over whether more aggressive measures are needed. Although other prefectures and municipalities have expressed their interest in being excluded from the travel subsidy program, the Suga government has insisted that it is responsible for deciding whether to exclude travel destinations. Moreover, both the government and the ruling parties want the Go To program to be extended past its planned expiration in January. Therefore, despite warnings from medical experts about rising hospitalization rates in major population centers and growing numbers of serious cases, the primary response from national, prefectural, and municipal authorities nationwide has been to call for bars and restaurants to shorten their hours and to urge individuals to practice “self restraint” and, in some places, to avoid non-essential activities outside of their homes.

It is possible that the public backs the Suga administration’s approach. Polls suggest that, despite growing disapproval of the Suga administration’s handling of the pandemic, there is less support for a new state of emergency declaration than during the first two waves. Furthermore, the public may share the government’s determination to balance between infection control and economic recovery. This could limit the downside risk to Suga’s standing from the surge of infections.

The third wave has, however, forced the prime minister to shelve plans for a snap election in early 2021, complicating the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) determination to lock in a new parliamentary majority while the new prime minister’s approval ratings are still high. There is now uncertainty about when a general election will be called – the Diet’s term ends in October – since the political calendar is complicated by Tokyo legislative assembly elections in early July, the start of the Olympics in late July, and the next Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election in September. Delaying a snap election also increases the risk of a scandal or other shock that undermines the government’s support. Suga is already facing questioning from opposition lawmakers – and demands to extend the parliamentary session, now scheduled to close on 5 December – after prosecutors intensified their scrutiny of former prime minister Shinzo Abe for unreported payments for political supporters to attend the government’s annual cherry blossom-viewing party, a possible violation of the Political Funds Control law.

Nevertheless, delaying a snap election could be the safest decision for Suga. The public overwhelmingly wants the prime minister to focus on managing Covid-19, which in the new year will include overseeing the distribution of a vaccine. In the meantime, his government will also be able to pass a new stimulus package that could boost his position heading into campaign. It is increasingly likely that the third FY2020 supplemental budget, which will be submitted to the Diet when the ordinary session opens in January, could be more than JPY 30tn (USD 287.5bn). Economic Revitalization Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura suggested on Friday, 27 November that Japan’s economy still faces a demand shortfall of JPY 34tn (USD 325.9) and stated that the next stimulus package should fill that gap; on Monday, the LDP submitted a draft totaling roughly that amount. The government and ruling parties will finalize the supplemental budget within the next two weeks.

If the government is able to contain the third wave without a state of emergency or “soft” lockdown, if fiscal stimulus continues to keep stabilize the economy, and if the administration is able to begin rolling out a vaccine without complications, Suga could be well positioned to call a snap election as early as April, after the FY2021 budget is passed, and lead the LDP to victory, clearing the way for him to win a term as LDP president in September.

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