Build strong system to contain pandemic under new leadership / Restoring public trust in politics essential

The prime minister is expected to change suddenly at a crucial moment in the government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Efforts must be made to restore public trust in politics and build a system that can deal with the crisis.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has expressed his intention not to run in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election, with official campaigning to begin on Sept. 17 and voting and ballot counting scheduled for Sept. 29. With the expiration of his term as party president at the end of this month, he is to step aside as prime minister after serving at the helm of government for a little more than a year.

Suga told reporters, “I’d like to focus on preventing the spread of coronavirus infections.” Although Suga had expressed his willingness to run for reelection, he was forced to step down after his handling of the administration went astray and drew increasing criticism for reasons such as the sudden announcement of a plan to reshuffle party executive posts.

Games a bright spot

Suga, who long served as chief cabinet secretary in the previous administration led by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, ran for the party’s presidency in September last year following Abe’s announcement of his intention to step down. Suga ran on a platform of continuing the direction of the previous administration, and with the support of major party factions, he won against former LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida and former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba by a wide margin.

It is noteworthy that Suga achieved certain results by demonstrating his leadership in the establishment of the Digital Agency and the reduction of mobile phone fees, which were included in his pledges for the party presidential election.

With regard to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which had been postponed for one year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Suga stressed that he would realize a safe and secure Games and resisted calls for their cancellation, leading to the holding of the Games.

Spectators have been barred from almost all competition venues for the Games, and the Paralympics are on track to close on Sept. 5 without any major mass infections. It can be called an accomplishment of the prime minister that Japan could fulfill its responsibility to the international community as the host country.

However, the prime minister cannot be said to have produced sufficient results in terms of coronavirus infection control measures.

The prime minister said, “Vaccination is key to bringing the pandemic under control,” accelerating vaccinations by local governments with a target of 1 million shots a day. As the number of vaccinations administered by companies at their workplaces has also been increasing, achieving the goal of “completing the inoculations of all those who wish to get vaccinated by October or November” is now in sight.

On the other hand, his government failed to improve the medical care system, such as by securing sufficient hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. Even though the government urged the public to refrain from social activities, its messages were not effectively delivered.

Immediately after Suga took office as prime minister in autumn last year, he set a goal of balancing economic activities with measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. However, the government was slow to take steps to secure medical care services in the medium and long term. The delay in such measures may have been a factor.

Amid the spread of infections, there have been a number of situations in which responses fell behind. One example is that the government stuck to implementing the Go To campaigns to stimulate demand.

Growing public distrust

One of the reasons why his administration has come to a standstill is that under the preceding long-lived Abe administration, the LDP’s predominance in the political landscape has progressed, and the concentration of authority in the Prime Minister’s Office has made the administration less likely to hear diverse input.

Suga also did not deal strictly with a series of LDP lawmaker scandals involving money and politics.

Although the Cabinet enjoyed a high approval rating immediately after its inauguration, public support declined rapidly and the LDP lost three elections in April — one for a House of Representatives seat and two for House of Councillors seats — followed by the defeat of a candidate with significant LDP support in the Yokohama mayoral election in August. This is plainly a result of failings to squarely face public distrust in politics.

In the party presidential election to choose a successor to Suga, the ability to restore public confidence and bring the coronavirus pandemic under control will be scrutinized.

Kishida has already announced his candidacy, and Taro Kono, state minister in charge of administrative and regulatory reform, reportedly has expressed his willingness to run in the election as well. Attention has also been paid to the moves of others, such as Ishiba and former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi.

Putting forward measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Kishida proposed ideas, including establishing a health crisis management agency. He also came out with a reform of party management by limiting the term of office of party executive posts, among other steps.

Lawmakers who hope to succeed Suga need to present convincing concrete proposals and contend over their political views through active debate.

In the presidential election, the candidates will be vying for 766 votes in total — the 383 held by LDP lawmakers and an equal number of ballots based on votes cast by rank-and-file party members. The support of rank-and-file members is also expected to affect the votes cast by Diet members.

Effect on Diet election

During the presidential election, Suga will work on measures against the coronavirus pandemic through the end of this month.

In the fifth wave of infections, although the number of new cases in the Tokyo metropolitan and other areas has been decreasing, it remains to be seen whether another surge can be halted. The government must not make a mistake in making important decisions on such issues as the extension of a state of emergency and the resumption of economic activities.

The term of office for lower house lawmakers will expire on Oct. 21. It is highly likely that the next lower house election will take place in November under a new prime minister.

Some LDP lawmakers have complained that they would not be able to fight in the upcoming lower house election under Suga’s leadership. However, a political leader should not be chosen solely on the basis of temporary popularity.

Whether the LDP will be able to regain public trust through its presidential election debate will directly affect the outcome of the lower house election — a national election for the public to choose which party is most fit to govern.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 4, 2021.