- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga held his first press conference of the year on Monday, 4 January, in which he indicated that his government is considering declaring a state of emergency as early as Thursday, 7 January.
- Suga’s handling of the pandemic has contributed to a sharp decline in his popularity, threatening his survival ahead of a party leadership election and general election this year.
Suga’s announcement comes after Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and other governors in the capital region called upon the national government to introduce a state of emergency for the second time since the pandemic began. Nationally, Japan’s caseload has continued to surge, breaking 4,000 cases in a single day on 31 December; Tokyo set a record of 1,337 new cases the same day. Serious cases have continued to mount, raising concerns about strains on the healthcare system. This decision, the latest retreat in the administration’s attempt to contain Japan’s third wave of Covid-19 while avoiding even a soft shutdown that would damage the economy, highlights Suga’s vulnerable position at the start of a year in which his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will hold a leadership election in September and in which a general election will have to be held by October.
The pending emergency declaration, which will still have to be formally recommended by the government’s Covid-19 advisory committee, is expected to cover Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama for an initial duration of one month. The declaration may be more limited than the declaration issued by the Abe administration in April 2020. The government has indicated that it wants to avoid school closures, for example. It will impose restrictions on public gatherings and urge residents to avoid non-essential activities outside of the home; the declaration will likely target eating and drinking establishments in particular, since, as Suga argued Monday, these have been linked to the majority of cases that can be traced. These businesses will be asked to close by 8pm starting on 8 January. Meanwhile, other policies introduced to combat the third wave – the suspension of the Go To Travel program from 28 December to 11 January and new travel bans in response to the new strain of Covid-19 – will be extended.
The most significant difference is that the Suga administration is now preparing additional changes to the special measures act, which governs the process of declaring a state of emergency, to include penalties for businesses that fail to comply with government requests to close or shorten their hours and compensation for businesses that comply. But the ordinary session of the Diet will not begin until 18 January, meaning that prefectural governments will not be able to compel businesses to close. The Suga administration, however, is considering increasing subsidies to businesses that reduce their hours and the Diet will also move quickly to ratify the government’s third FY2020 supplemental budget, part of a stimulus package unveiled last month. Nevertheless, the economic impact of even a limited emergency declaration could be significant.
The political impact may be greater still. Suga starts the new year with his approval ratings having fallen sharply, largely because public disapproval of the government’s handling of the pandemic is as high as at any point since the pandemic began. The decision to declare a new state of emergency is another example of how the desire to balance public health and economic recovery has led to a reactive approach that has allowed the virus to continue to spread. The upshot is that the prime minister is hamstrung. While a well-timed snap election could enable him to win a new majority for the ruling coalition and increase the likelihood that Suga will win a full term as LDP president in September. But with his approval ratings weak and the third wave continuing to surge, it is virtually impossible for the prime minister to call a snap election. Abandoning the balanced approach to the pandemic and introducing a more expansive state of emergency might contain the outbreak, but would effectively be an admission of failure with significant economic costs. Suga’s authority as the head of the ruling coalition was already weakened after a bruising fight with junior coalition partner Komeito over a plan to raise out-of-pocket medical expenses and tensions with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai after his abrupt decision to suspend the Go To Travel program. The decision to declare a state of emergency has already been criticized by ruling coalition lawmakers since Suga waited until after Koike called for an emergency declaration. If the third wave does not peak soon, his position could be irreversibly weakened, opening the door to a new party leader and a general election when the parliamentary term ends in October.
The distribution of a vaccine will likely be a critical test of whether Suga will be able to stabilize his premiership. On Monday, Suga noted that, thanks to the involvement of the prime minister’s office (instead of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare), Japan will receive necessary data from Pfizer this month and is aiming to begin distributing the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine – of which it has purchased enough doses to inoculate 60 million people – by the end of February. Nevertheless, the vaccine rollout is not without risks for the government. Not only does the government need to ensure that the distribution system, including the refrigeration necessary to handle the Pfizer vaccine, is in place, but it must also overcome potential public skepticism to the vaccine, which is in part the result of health scares that resulted from earlier vaccination campaigns.