Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will not run again for his party leadership - nor for the upcoming prime ministership. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

TOKYO – In a move that shocked Japan with its timing, but which had been widely predicted, unpopular Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced on Friday that he will not run again as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Suga will remain in power until a party leadership election takes place on September 29.

He was chosen as successor to Japan’s longest serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, last September. Colorless, and a long-term number two under Abe, he failed to animate the public with his persona. Nor did he surmount multiple challenges he faced as a leader.  

Suga’s resignation makes the leadership election a free-for-all. Whoever wins will lead the conservative ruling party into parliamentary elections expected in late October, but which could take place in November.

Few will shed tears for a prime minister who never really got off the ground, and the Nikkei ended up 2.5% on Friday. But with no clear winner among the candidates to replace him, there is murkiness in the weeks ahead. 

Did he fall? Was he pushed?

Despite his dismal leadership record, much of Japan expected Suga to seek re-election as party leader. Political reporters and even party insiders were caught off guard, given events a day earlier.

On Friday morning, the headline of almost every Japanese daily had been the same: “Suga signals to LDP secretary-general he will run again.”

According to these reports, Suga had met with LDP secretary-general Toshiro Nikai on Thursday at LDP headquarters. There, he had conveyed his decision to run again for party head and sought Nikai’s support.

Suga apparently announced his intention to resign at a hastily called meeting of LDP senior members on Friday. “Apparently,” because the prime minister did not announce the decision himself.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga waves in an April 16, 2021 photo. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun/Masanori Genko

Instead, adding spin to the rumor mill, it fell to Nikai – a key LDP political wheeler dealer – to break the news to reporters.

“Today at our executive meeting, LDP leader Suga said he wants to focus his efforts on anti-coronavirus measures and will not run in the leadership election,” Nikai said. “To tell the truth, I was surprised. It’s indeed regrettable. He did his best but after careful consideration, he made this decision.”

Subsequently, in an impromptu press conference outside his office, Suga gave a terse speech. “In the year since I became prime minister, I have put all my energy into dealing with the various problems facing the country, especially anti-coronavirus measures,” he said. 

Running for the LDP leadership this month while dealing with the virus would take more energy than he had, he indicated. “I realized that I cannot do both,” he said. “I had to choose one of them.”

He took no questions. He is expected to hold a formal press conference next week. The big question is whether he fell on his sword or was stabbed with it.

A political outsider for most of his career, Suga was the right-hand man of Abe for a decade. However, he never had his own faction in the party and was dependent on the support of Nikai and other kingmakers. 

A source familiar with Japanese politics told Asia Times, “I don’t think Suga made this decision by himself” – suggesting that Deputy Prime Minister and long-term party player Taro Aso or other cabinet members had pressed him to resign.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso may have pressed Suga to resign. Photo: AFP

There is more. In an unprecedented move to consolidate power, Suga had planned a personnel reshuffle of the LDP and even announced plans to remove his political godfather, Nikai, and appoint a new secretary-general. 

Friday’s meeting with Nikai was supposed to be a discussion of the new line-up. Instead, it ended with Suga bowing out.

‘Dragging us all down’

Seen in the light of Suga’s public persona, political failures and plummeting approval ratings, surprise at the news may be somewhat unwarranted.  

“You can’t win an election with a loser as your leader,” an upper house member of the LDP told Asia Times. “Suga is so unpopular that he would drag all of us down.” 

When Suga – widely hailed for being a non-elite, strawberry farmer’s son – started his term, he had 70% support in some polls. His current approval is below 32% according to a Kyodo News poll.

He has made blunder after blunder since taking office. 

He became embroiled in almost immediate controversy after he barred several academics whose opinions he did not like from a government advisory council. 

He delivered on one key election promise, to bring down Japan’s notoriously high mobile phone bills, but failed in a massive task he had set for his administration – to reform and modernize Japan’s paper-happy, fax-centric bureaucracy.

With Japan in the midst of a pandemic, Suga pushed forward a travel and dining-out campaign, “Go To Travel/Go To Eat.” That proved less a savior of the service sector, more a vector for the virus. 

Japan’s vaccine rollout is finally speeding up but started off as one of the slowest in the developed world. Today, 46% of the populace is vaccinated, but in Tokyo, those aged 20-30 can’t get an appointment to be vaccinated until October.

On August 27, the number of people with Covid-19 under orders to recuperate at home rather than visit a medical facility was nearly 118,000 – over 100,000 for the first time – as hospitals are refusing patients.

Suga’s promise to “focus on fighting Covid-19” generated widespread derision on social media. Despite the warnings of medical experts, his decision to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is now seen as aggravating the current wave of the pandemic.

Imploding political support

Suga’s failures have made him toxic. According to the LDP insider, the real reason he resigned – or was shoved out – was that he couldn’t garner the 20 nominations necessary to seek re-election. 

Koichi Nakano, a professor of Japanese politics at Sophia University, compares Suga to a sinking ship. 

“Suga became prime minister a year ago thanks to the support of the four largest factions of the LDP when the vacancy was suddenly created by Abe – and he was only meant to be a stop-gap PM until this year’s LDP leadership election,” Nakano said.

Suga receives the Covid-19 vaccine at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo. His handling of the vaccination program was widely criticized. Photo: AFP / Jiji Press

“Of course, he would have wanted to continue beyond his first year, and he could have, had he been both popular enough with the public and acceptable for the party elders like Abe, Aso, and Nikai.”  

The core problem, Nakano added, was that “Suga sucked.”

“He has the personal charm and the communication skills of a soulless, dysfunctional robot, at best,” Nakano said. “Suga’s failure to prioritize and focus on containing Covid as the public wished resulted in the plummeting support levels.”

Jeff Kingston, author of Contemporary Japan: History, Politics and Social Change since the 1980s, was scathing about Suga’s leadership. 

“He was a wooden communicator with mediocre political skills,” Kingston said. “Known as a savvy behind-the-scenes operator, he failed to accomplish anything of significance. He presided over a slow and chaotic vaccination rollout. He left the nation inexcusably unprepared for the ongoing wave of infections. He showed no empathy telling people to go home and recover and failed to expand hospital capacity.”

Kingston suggested potential political instability ahead.

“His departure won’t be regretted, but it could lead to a new era of one-and-done prime ministers,” he said.

Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida casts his ballot during the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) leadership election in Tokyo on September 14, 2020, which Suga won. Photo: AFP / Eugene Hoshiko

The latter should send shivers up spines. Before Abe brought nearly eight years of political longevity in his second term in office, Japanese politics had been disempowered by a series of revolving-door leaders. 

Party expands voting to rank and file

The upcoming party presidential election will be the first full LDP leadership race in three years involving party members both inside and outside the Diet. That makes it far more representative than how Suga was ushered into power, which was largely decided behind closed doors.

This matters a great deal. It gives the party rank and file, who are believed to favor younger and more charismatic candidates over party warhorses, a voice.

An election in both houses of the Diet appointed Suga as Abe’s successor on September 16, 2020. Given the LDP’s majority, it was determined, de facto, by intra-party consensus.  Suga won 314 out of the 416 available votes in the House of Representatives, and the majority in the House of Counselors.

This time around, 766 votes will be cast. Each LDP member of parliament will mark a ballot for a total of 383 votes. But the remaining 383 votes will be proportionally distributed to reflect votes cast by 1.13 million party members across Japan. 

This means a far wider plebiscite will vote for Suga’s successor than had been the case for Suga. The victor, by default, will succeed Suga as the 100th prime minister of Japan.

Still, the position could be tenuous. The winner’s first task will be to lead the party into the general election, which can take place as late as November 28 but is widely expected to be conducted in October. Though the LDP is widely tipped to win, the political uncertainty of the next few weeks is unlikely to improve its chances.

Candidates, step forward

Several candidates have already declared.

Fumio Kishida, Japan’s former foreign minister was close to Abe, but has since broken with him. On Thursday, Kishida outlined an economic plan with “tens of trillions of yen” to rein in the pandemic. His proposal includes plans to secure hospital beds for patients and the creation of a health management agency. 

Former internal affairs and communications minister Sanae Takaichi has not yet gathered enough support to stand. Photo: AFP / Toshifumi Kitamura

Another declaration came from former minister for internal affairs Sanae Takaichi. However, Takaichi, a loyal follower of Abe and staunch member of the right-wing lobby group Nippon Kaigi, has not been able to gather 20 nominations yet.

In one sense she is a breath of fresh air, given that females in high political positions are rare in Japan. But she has a dubious history of being photographed with members of Japan’s Nazi Party and praising Hitler’s election strategy. 

Late Friday, the most keenly watched candidate, Vaccination Minister Taro Kono, made clear he intends to run. Relatively young and outspoken, he is a Georgetown University graduate and English speaker. Widely experienced in international policy, having been both a former foreign affairs and defense minister, he is seen as a China hawk. 

Kono, who multi-tasks as administrative and regulatory reform minister, is a popular choice in media polls. 

Taro Kono speaks during an interview in Tokyo on June 30, 2021. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP

But he is not the only LDP player popular with the street. Shigeru Ishiba, another former minister of defense, said he was ready to serve as prime minister. He has already secured 17 nominations according to one party insider and is wildly popular with the rank-and-file. 

At this point, the candidate with the best support among both Diet members and party rank and file looks like Kono.

Though he failed in the key task Suga assigned him – reforming the bureaucracy – and has hardly proven world-class in his job as vaccine minister, the political insider reckons Kono could be the next in line. 

“He is favored by the Abe-Aso faction, which is the most powerful in the LDP at present,” the source said. “And they do not like Ishiba or Kishida.”