‘Zero Empathy’ Suga is competing for a job after Japan’s Olympic victory

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Athletes put on a show, but there is no hint that success will rub off on a prime minister who is up for re-election in late October.

Tokyo, Japan – With the postponed pandemic-hit Tokyo Olympics drawing to a close on Sunday, all eyes in Japan are now on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of a general election that must be held by late October.

The prime minister has already come under fire for how he handled the situation. Many believed he had succumbed to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) pressure to conduct the games, despite Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency due to COVID-19 barely two weeks before the opening ceremony.

Only 32% of the general population had received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccination by the commencement of the event, which was held a year later due to coronavirus. Critics claimed that Suga, whose popularity had plummeted as a result of his management of the outbreak, was risking public health in the hopes of boosting ratings — should the nation’s athletes do well and the Games go off without a hitch.

Japan’s Olympians outperformed expectations, winning 58 medals, 27 of which were gold, in a feat unprecedented in the country’s history. However, with coronavirus infections in the capital skyrocketing, it’s unlikely that their achievements will be replicated in the prime minister.

“Suga is urgently attempting to bask in the reflected glory of Japan’s medal haul, but he can’t avoid the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

“The government insists there is no link between the Olympics and the uptick. However, the public blames him for a bungled vaccine rollout. It sends a confusing message to go forward with the Olympics despite the advice of his medical advisers while also declaring a national emergency.”

Over the next two weeks, experts estimate that 10,000 new cases will be reported in the city. Official policy is currently concentrating on raising awareness of the virus’s hazards among younger age groups, where infections are on the rise.

In Tokyo, the highly contagious Delta strain now accounts for 90% of new infections. The discovery of at least one instance of the Lambda variety has added to the post-celebratory joy and dread that has gripped the city.

Many Japanese believe Suga was more concerned with appeasing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) than with addressing their worries about staging a big sporting event during a pandemic. [File: Kimimasa Mayama/Pool via Reuters]
The Paralympic Games, which will begin on August 24, will further complicate the government’s contradictory messaging.

Despite the fact that daily coronavirus cases in the host city of Tokyo surpassed 5,000 for the first time on August 5, Suga declared at a press conference the next day that spectators could still be permitted.

“In that sense, Suga has stoked public suspicion and appears inept, keen to blame young people for their irresponsibility in order to divert attention away from his own failures,” Kingston added. “The problem is exacerbated by his wooden news appearances, in which he expresses no empathy and only makes boilerplate remarks that make him appear in over his head.”

Potential leadership challenge

The prime minister’s approval rating was 28 percent in an Asahi poll taken over the weekend, just below the 30 percent figure widely regarded the “point of no return.” Shinzo Abe, Suga’s predecessor, was unusual among Japanese prime ministers in that he served for eight years, making him the country’s longest-serving leader. The majority of the others have only lasted a few years.

Suga’s term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ends on September 30, and analysts believe he may face a challenge from inside the party. Many younger legislators have lost faith in the leadership as a result of the public’s dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of the health-care problem.

“If a major competitor arises, it is increasingly likely that Suga would not be able to win re-election because he lacks a significant power base within the party,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of Comparative Politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “In that event, before the general election later this fall, he will be replaced by a new leader.’

Sanae Takaichi, the former Minister of Internal Affairs, thrown her hat into the ring as a possible candidate last week. However, she may be limited in her ability to succeed because she needs the support of 20 LDP legislators, which has traditionally been a stumbling hurdle for women in the male-dominated party.

Taro Kono (left), Japan’s “vaccine tsar,” might be Yoshihide Suga’s successor. Suga faces a party leadership election and a general election in the coming months. [File: Stringer/Jiji Press via AFP]

Sanae Takaichi has put her name forward as a possible replacement for Suga, but she will need the approval of at least 20 lawmakers in the male-dominated party. [File:Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP]
According to a poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shinbun, 20% of respondents predict that vaccine czar Taro Kono, a former foreign minister, will be the next president. However, Suga’s wise decision to assign Kono the difficult task of managing the phlegmatic immunization scheme may jeopardize his chances this time.

If Suga is able to hold off his internal opponents before the general election, voters will be left with few options.

The country’s largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), has unable to make any substantial advances despite waning LDP support and Suga’s apparent incapacity to handle the increasing coronavirus situation.

Internal conflicts play a role in this. Hiranao Honda, a CDP legislator, recently resigned after making disrespectful comments about the legal age of consent, causing the party to become entangled in a disastrous feud.

In other areas, the party has fought claims that it is simply a rebranded version of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

In 2009, a similar spirit of discontent led to the DPJ briefly seizing power from the LDP. Since the LDP’s founding in 1955, just two times has the party relinquished control of the Diet, Japan’s parliament.

Internal infighting and the consequences from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear tragedy caused the DPJ to crumble, resulting in a resounding defeat in the 2012 election.

The CDP’s most serious worry, however, is the tense relationship it has formed with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP).

The JCP is eager to execute a “opposition parties-united administration” approach after gaining ground in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections in July through cooperation with other opposition parties.

Pandemic increases unpredictability

However, fundamental topics such as the US-Japan relationship and the monarchy continue to divide the two parties. According to Sophia University’s Nakano, an agreement will be conceivable, and the CDP will be “poised to gain more seats in the election, though perhaps not enough to win power.”

The perception that the opposition is disjointed could work in Suga’s favor.

“A fragmented opposition tends to shift the scales in favor of the LDP in Japan’s lower house elections,” said Phillip Lipscy, the University of Toronto’s chair in Japanese politics and global affairs.

Japan’s one-two performance in park skateboarding was a highlight of the country’s Olympic triumph in Tokyo 2020. [File: Ben Curtis/AP Photo]
The widespread belief that the LDP is unassailable forces voters to make a Hobson’s Choice: either vote for an uninteresting incumbent who, at the at least, is a known commodity, or look elsewhere, which often leads to further factionalism and conflict.

“In Japan, disillusionment with both the LDP and opposition parties is nothing new,” Lipscy added. “It is one of the reasons why, in public opinion polls, so many Japanese voters [about 42 percent] express support for no party.”

The level of unpredictability created by the pandemic, on the other hand, is encouraging for those seeking change in the next elections.

Voters are enraged not only by the government’s handling of COVID-19, but also by their participation as test subjects in the global experiment of combining the Olympic and Paralympic games.

“If voters remain apathetic, the LDP and coalition partner Komei perform well since they have rather stable core support bases,” Lipscy said. Previously unaffiliated “floating voters,” on the other hand, can “swing election outcomes drastically if they become excited and turn out in huge numbers,” according to him.


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