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December 7, 2020


JAPAN: Suga heads into parliamentary recess facing political headwinds

BY Tobias Harris

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( 5 mins)
  • Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga heads into a parliamentary recess with his approval ratings having fallen sharply.
  • Suga’s falling approval ratings likely reflect growing disapproval of his handling of Covid-19 and perhaps also the reemergence of a political finance scandal that has implicated former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s aides.

In a press conference on 4 December, his first since taking office in September, Yoshihide Suga marked the end of his first parliamentary session as prime minister and, while he sounded a cautionary note about Japan’s third wave of Covid-19 infections, he touted his government’s legislation to organize vaccine distribution; noted the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the ratification of a bilateral trade agreement with the UK; and highlighted mobile provider NTT-Docomo’s decision to introduce a new, cheaper plan as a victory in his personal campaign for lower mobile rates. However, despite these achievements Suga faces serious political headwinds for the first time since he succeeded Shinzo Abe as prime minister in September.

Most notably, after enjoying strong approval ratings upon taking office, Suga has begun shedding support. In absolute terms, the government’s support remains healthy, at 50% or higher. Falling approval ratings, even large drops, could be a regression to the Abe-era mean rather than a warning sign that the prime minister faces a loss of public confidence. However, polls suggest that there could be underlying issues that augur more serious challenges for Suga heading into 2021.

First, opinion has soured on the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic, with solid majorities now disapproving of it. As the third wave swelled, the prime minister has avoided addressing the country. (On Friday, he also drew criticism for entirely failing to address a question that referred to a sharp increase in suicides this year.) His government has continued to prioritize economic recovery over infection control, even as hospitalizations have surged to the point that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are preparing to dispatch nurses to provide medical care in Osaka and Sapporo, two of the third wave’s most serious hotspots. The government’s messaging about its plans, particularly whether and how it will continue to subsidize domestic travel and dining out, has been vague and contradictory. While it is possible that the third wave has already peaked – the increase in new cases appears to be leveling off – the medical system is still managing an increasing number of severe cases. Deaths have been rising and in recent days Japan has seen the highest numbers of deaths-per-day since the pandemic began. Suga’s handling of Covid-19 could continue to weigh on his approval ratings heading into the new year, even if the caseload stabilizes.

Meanwhile, an old Abe scandal has reemerged and could also influence Suga’s political standing. In November, the Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office began investigating former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s support group for allegedly failing to report roughly JPY 30mn (USD 289,000) in income and expenditures related to payments for political supporters to attend dinners on the eve of the government’s annual cherry-blossom-viewing party from 2013-2019. The failure to report these transactions would violate the political funds control law. Prosecutors have asked Abe to submit to questioning voluntarily – and opposition lawmakers have called for Abe to face parliamentary questioning – about the expenditures. It is likely that two of the former prime minister’s aides will face summary indictments, since the aides reportedly admitted their guilt and claimed they were solely responsible. Summary indictments would mean that the aides would have to pay fines but would not have to face a full trial. If the case ends with the summary indictments, the political damage to Suga could be minimal. It is unclear how much the public will punish Suga for his predecessor’s scandal, even he was chief cabinet secretary when it occurred. Abe himself was able to weather multiple scandals – scandals in which the public largely rejected his explanations when he was accused of influence peddling – without crippling his government. Suga, meanwhile, has largely defused the controversy over appointments to the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) that surfaced early in his tenure.

However, prosecutors are believed to be investigating the source of the money used to subsidize the dinner attendees, which would at least keep the issue in the public eye. If Abe were indicted, it would be a serious political threat to a prime minister who was Abe’s chief lieutenant and who ran for the premiership promising to pursue Abe’s policy priorities. In the meantime, the LDP will likely try to deflect responsibility entirely on to Abe and his political operation. Even his brother, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, has said that Abe has a responsibility to explain what happened.

The upshot is that both of these issues will dominate discussion during the parliamentary recess, which could further depress Suga’s approval ratings. The Suga cabinet’s new stimulus package, which will be approved in a special meeting on Tuesday, 8 December, could prove popular, but will likely be insufficient to offset critical scrutiny of the government’s handling of the public health response to the third wave and Abe’s scandal. The stimulus package will be submitted to the Diet after it returns for the 2021 ordinary session, most likely on 18 January. In the meantime, Suga will have to tame the third wave, limit the strain on the medical system, and prepare the groundwork for vaccine distribution in order to stabilize his government’s support.

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