Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is facing challenges on every front after the economy's recovery reversed itself in the first quarter of 2021. Photo: AFP/Mitsuru Tamura/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Conservative Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday he intended to take his party’s defeats in Sunday’s by-elections with humility and make necessary amends, Reuters reported from Tokyo.

Suga’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party suffered a 3-0 wipeout on Sunday, the same day tougher virus restrictions were placed on a pandemic-weary populace in Hyogo, Kyoto and Japan’s second city of Osaka.

Sunday’s by-elections filled one lower house seat in Hokkaido and two upper house seats in Hiroshima and Nagano. All three seats were won by the main opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP). The loss of Hiroshima – seen as an LDP stronghold – was a particularly damaging blow for Suga’s party.

The result was bad, but hardly mortal, news for the LDP. But there could be worse news ahead for the prime minister.

A general election must be held by October 21, while Suga’s term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, expires in September.

The powerful LDP, with a comfortable majority, is not expected to lose the national vote. However, Suga’s unpopular and largely ineffective leadership suggests potential political machinations in the months ahead – most likely after the troubled Tokyo Olympic Games, which are due to start on July 23 and finish on August 8.

A House of Representatives by-election for Hokkaido No 2 single-seat constituency is held in Sapporo City, Hokkaido Prefecture, April 25, 2021. Photo: AFP/Takuya Matsumoto/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Embattled on all fronts

Though Suga bagged a rare diplomatic win last week, when he was the first foreign leader to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington, the by-election blow comes at a time when Suga is besieged by domestic problems.

The farmer’s son and long-time political insider, who took office as premier after long-term predecessor Shinzo Abe exited the job last September on grounds of ill-health, has been forced to call yet another state of emergency as Japan is swept by a fourth-wave of Covid infections.

That must hurt. Suga had vowed to avoid yet another state of emergency, but was left with no choice but to break his own promise as highly contagious variants of the coronavirus ran rampant, Kyodo News reported.

Adding to his woes, Japan’s vaccination campaign is proceeding at a snail’s pace. According to the Financial Times’ vaccination tracker, Japan – a G3 super economy – is in 108th place worldwide in terms of inoculations per 100 members of the population.

Polls suggest that 70% of Japanese are unhappy with the government’s vaccination program, while Suga’s own approval ratings have been hovering below 40% since February.

Meanwhile, the much-touted Olympic bonanza, expected to deliver a US$40 billion shot in the arm to the Japanese economy, has evaporated. The Olympic Games will be held without overseas spectators, robbing an embattled tourism service sector of a critical economic lifeline.

Indeed, Suga’s political achievements so far are minimalist. He took office vowing to suppress Japan’s famously high mobile telephone fees and bring its paper-centric bureaucracy into the 21st century.

Though he has achieved the first, digitization of the bureaucracy has proven a far tougher task. For example, the contact tracing app used to monitor viral infections has been widely lambasted.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike had a big edge on Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe in the popularity stakes. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Bigger game afoot

Still, the by-election slap-down is hardly a harbinger of an LDP defeat in October, or before, depending on when the plebiscite is called. The party is a political bastion with 278 seats in the House of Representatives, compared with the CDP’s 113.

Suga’s fate is less fortified. It is unclear how long he can hold onto the helm of the party.

The LDP’s current ranks boast several high-profile scions of conservative Japanese political families, a number of whom are younger and appear more dynamic and perhaps more voter-friendly.

These include vaccine tsar Taro Kono, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s son Shinjiro, the current Environment Minister, and current Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.

Then there is an ex-party dark horse who is not only popular with voters but is – shock – female.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike has been widely seen as a dynamo in handling Covid and is, more widely, a very credible political figure. She departed the LDP amid disputes with party figures and established her own political machine, but is believed to retain some support in the ruling party.