A large screen displays the news of Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's decision not to run for the presidential election in Fukuoka city on Sept. 3. (Photo: AFP)
The fabled leadership of Japan has been humbled by the coronavirus. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga became a rare leader of a developed country to put in his papers because of the worsening pandemic.
The announcement came on Sept. 3 as 72-year-old Suga’s popularity dropped to an all-time low. With Covid-19 infections skyrocketing, hospitals struggling to admit patients and tardy progress of its vaccination campaign, the world’s third-largest economy is now grappling with its worst Covid-19 wave.
Suga’s immediate predecessor and the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, abruptly quit in August 2020, a year ahead of schedule.
Abe left office due to a bout of illness in the midst of the surging pandemic. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rallied around Suga, his right-hand man and chief cabinet secretary, to shore up Japan’s coronavirus response.
However, his botched response to the pandemic brought his prime ministerial innings to an end. The fifth wave, triggered by the Delta variant, and a slow vaccination rollout (47 percent of the population are now fully vaccinated) proved Suga’s undoing.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Japan had reported 1,580,517 Covid-19 infections and 16,387 deaths as of Sept. 7. Despite deep public fears over hosting the recent Tokyo Olympics, Suga went ahead and proved to be hugely unpopular.
The stakes are high for the LDP, which has dominated Japanese politics for decades
The uncharismatic PM, born to a family of strawberry farmers, failed to connect with the public, according to public opinion. The LDP under Suga suffered defeats in this year’s regional elections and lost the mayoral race in Yokohama, the prime minister’s adopted political hometown.
The stakes are high for the LDP, which has dominated Japanese politics for decades. It has to select the next president at the end of this month and face a general election later in the year under the new leader.
The Liberal Democrats have been at the helm of affairs in Japan for almost the entire post-war era. The opposition parties, including the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), have been in disarray after being blamed for the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
With the same party assured of victory in the coming polls, Japan’s policies on the economy, trade and international relations are unlikely to undergo a change.
On Japan’s foreign outlook, Suga improved on Abe’s legacy to bolster Indo-Pacific security by taking the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising Japan, the US, Australia and India to the next level.
The Indo-Pacific’s most sensitive security grouping is aimed at China in the light of a changing geopolitical order in Asia after the emergence of Beijing, a declared nuclear power, as the second-largest economy in the world.
Japan’s 2021 defense white paper cited China and North Korea, which is reported to have nuclear weapons, as the two security threats to Japan.
Suga showed a strong resolve to face the Chinese challenge in Asia and the world.
After he announced his decision to quit, a US State Department spokesperson said that Suga was the first foreign leader President Joe Biden had asked to visit the White House for talks. With the Biden-Suga summit in April, he achieved a “global partnership for a new era” with Japan’s trusted ally.
The Catholic Church in Japan has been urging the Suga government to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that came into force on Jan. 22.
But the government has been sticking to its long-standing position to remain under the US “nuclear umbrella” and refused to ratify the international treaty, which bans testing, producing, developing, acquiring and possessing nuclear explosive devices.
In order for the Japanese economy to lead growth, green and digital will have to be hand in hand
“I believe that Japan, the only country to suffer atomic bombings, should be among the first to ratify the treaty,” Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan asserted in a statement on July 15.
The archbishop observed that if non-nuclear countries ratify the treaty the nuclear powers “will feel pressured to ratify it.”
Though a few countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal and Laos on the continent are signatories and parties to the treaty, Asians as a whole are looking forward to the predictable political developments in Japan by this month-end.
Suga’s trip to Indonesia and Vietnam helped to build ties with strategic Southeast Asian partners. The Japan-European Union cooperation saw considerable growth, with Suga meeting EU leaders in May via a virtual summit.
Domestically, "Suganomics" followed the framework laid by "Abenomics" to ensure a recovery for Japan’s dwindling economy. By February this year, Japan’s economy had posted 12 percent growth from the fourth quarter of 2020, helping the nation of 126 million people tide over its worst recession in the post-war period.
Suga took special care to spearhead the green energy and digital expansion of the Japanese economy.
“In order for the Japanese economy to lead growth, green and digital will have to be hand in hand. After I became prime minister, I decided on the target of going carbon neutral by 2050. Global warming measures should not be a constraint on economic activity,” Suga told US-based Newsweek in an interview on Aug. 11.
Taro Kono, who served as foreign and defense minister, said he was consulting allies before entering the poll fray
Since the Second World War, only five leaders have completed five years or longer in office in Japan. Suga came to office to devote himself to arrest the spread of the pandemic. But in the end, the pandemic claimed him as another victim.
The race to find a successor for Suga on Sept. 29 is relatively open so far.
Fumio Kishida, the former foreign minister, is the only declared candidate, while the name of former communications minister, SanaeTakaichi, the lone female member in the previous Abe government, has evinced interest.
Taro Kono, who served as foreign and defense minister, said he was consulting allies before entering the poll fray. A graduate of Georgetown University, the 58-year-old is a rarity in Japanese politics, which is lorded over by elderly men.
Kano, the outspoken cabinet minister in charge of vaccinations, has the most popular support, according to Japanese media.
Maybe the LDP can anoint a successor to Suga who can lead the Asian rally for a nuclear-free world.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.