- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are both struggling with eroding political support as their countries face their most significant increases in Covid-19 cases thus far.
- While in recent weeks Moon has recorded some of his lowest approval ratings since he was elected in 2017, Suga’s situation is more severe.
Both Japan and South Korea have seen their numbers of Covid-19 cases reach new records this month, contributing to record-low approval ratings for both countries’ leaders. However, whereas Moon is constitutionally unable to run for reelection and his party enjoys a large majority, Suga’s term as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ends in September and a general election must be held by October, suggesting that the consequences of mishandling the pandemic could be significantly greater in Japan than in South Korea.
Suga’s perilous position
Days after Suga rejected reports that his government was considering whether to suspend its “Go To Travel” program for subsidizing domestic travel, the prime minister reversed course on Monday, 14 December, announcing suddenly that the program would be suspended from 28 December to 11 January to discourage New Year’s travel. He also announced that Tokyo and Nagoya would also be excluded from the program for the next two weeks, following Sapporo and Osaka.
Japan has continued to see record numbers of new cases – which surpassed 3,000 in a day for the first time on 12 December – as well as severe cases, which are approaching 600 cases nationwide. The death toll has also continued to rise, highlighting the severity of Japan’s third wave compared with previous waves. Hospital utilization rates are above 50% in three prefectures; Tokyo and Osaka are reporting that their intensive care capacity is now more than 50% occupied.
With the Suga administration struggling to articulate a clear course of action, the public has turned sharply against the prime minister. While Suga’s support had already slipped in polls conducted earlier in the month, two new polls – by national broadcaster NHK and the center-left daily Mainichi Shimbun – in recent days showed the decline is picking up pace. In NHK, the shift in net approval was 31 points, as approval fell 14 points to 42% and disapproval rose by 17 percentage points to 36%. In Mainichi, the shift was 30 points, as approval fell 17 points to 40% and disapproval surged past approval from 36% to 49%. Even if the Mainichi poll is an outlier, the trend is unmistakable: the government’s handling of the third wave is undermining its support more broadly. Suga’s decision to suspend the Go To Travel program later this month clearly seems to have been driven by these polls than by case numbers, which the government believes are generally not linked to domestic travel.
It is not yet clear what the consequences for Suga will be. The opposition has already criticized the prime minister’s announcement as being inadequate and coming too late. Although the LDP’s support has not declined, party members have nevertheless become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Suga. The problem he faces is that despite winning an overwhelming victory in the September leadership election with the backing of the party’s major factions, it is possible that his support within the party is relatively shallow, not least because he lacks his own faction. With strong approval ratings, Suga could use his popularity to bolster his position within the party, but if his popularity does not bounce back, he could be vulnerable to a movement within the LDP to replace him before the next general election or even before the next leadership election in September. In the meantime, the key person to watch is LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who is also chairman of the All Nippon Travel Agents Association and therefore a major proponent of the Go To Travel program. If Suga loses Nikai’s confidence, it could open the door to significantly greater volatility within the LDP.
The two weeks leading up until the end of the year will be critical for Suga. If the government can stabilize case numbers and reinforce the medical system before the New Year’s holidays – while avoiding more stringent measures – the prime minister could turn a corner in early 2021 with the passage of a new stimulus package and the presumed beginning of vaccine distribution. But if cases continue to mount, Suga will simultaneously face more pressure to impose more stringent measures, including a partial or nationwide state of emergency that could have the economic impact the prime minister had been hoping to avoid, and more criticism from within the LDP for having waited too long to react.
Moon’s survivable struggles
South Korea’s third wave has similarly driven Moon’s ratings to record lows with roughly 18 months remaining in his presidential term. South Korea’s caseload increased by more than 1,000 for the first time on Sunday, 13 December, mainly concentrated in the greater Seoul region, despite the government’s decision last week to raise social-distancing measures to the second-highest level on the five-level scale. Moon hinted Monday that his government could raise Seoul’s social distancing from level 2.5 to level 3, the highest level, which would amount to a lockdown of the region. The defense ministry has already deployed military personnel to shore up Seoul’s medical system, as concerns have grown that the surge in new cases could overwhelm hospitals. Moon stressed Monday that the government should be prepared to use funds in the 2021 budget passed earlier this month to assist individuals and businesses that could be affected by a move to level 3.
But Moon’s situation may be more sustainable than Suga’s. Despite Moon’s rising unpopularity, his Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) still commands a large legislative majority and will be able to run a new presidential candidate in 2022, since the president is limited to one term. There is little indication that the opposition People Power Party (PPP) has been able to make significant gains against the DPK.