Pitfalls Appear in Suga’s Top-down Approach

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, center, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, left, attend an extraordinary Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday afternoon.

Wednesday marked three months since the launch of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, which, despite having high approval ratings at the start, has seen support slip amid a resurgence of novel coronavirus cases. The lack of people who can coordinate efforts in the policy-making process has become conspicuous.

■ Late on pandemic

“Competition appears to have started regarding lower mobile phone charges,” Suga said proudly at a meeting of LDP Hosei University alumni and others at Liberal Democratic Party headquarters on Tuesday evening.

However, a Yomiuri Shimbun survey showed the Cabinet’s approval rating has fallen from an initial 74 % to 61 % this month. The government’s response to the coronavirus is being critically viewed.

On Monday it was announced that the central government’s tourism promotion campaign “Go To Travel” would be suspended.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan President Yukio Edano criticized the administration, saying, “The tourism and dining industries have taken a huge hit as a result of the delayed response.”

On Sunday evening, Suga ordered Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Norihisa Tamura and two other ministers to consider suspending the program aimed at reviving the tourism industry, upon which the prime minister had been fixated.

“A decision should have been made sooner. The problem is that the prime minister has nobody around him who can speak frankly,” a former LDP Cabinet minister said.

■ Taking charge

When Suga was chief cabinet secretary in the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, important policies were always discussed among Suga, Takaya Imai, who was both special advisor and secretary to the prime minister, and Abe.

Suga and Imai would lay the groundwork with the ruling parties and relevant ministries and agencies in advance.

In the Suga Cabinet, “The prime minister tries to take charge of everything on his own,” according to a close source.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the prime minister’s secretaries and other important officials who work in the Prime Minister’s Office do not have much of a presence.

Imai, who joined the now defunct International Trade and Industry Ministry in 1982, was the first among many secretaries in the Abe administration who started ministry careers in the 1980s.

In the Suga Cabinet, most secretaries are relatively young officials who have served Suga since he was a cabinet secretary, one of the factors in the prime minister’s top-down approach, according to a senior LDP official.

Hiroto Izumi, a special adviser to the prime minister, is a former Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry official who has been Suga’s right-hand man since his days as chief cabinet secretary. He is responsible for issues that span multiple ministries and agencies, such as the response to the pandemic. However, “He’s not the type of policymaker who can coordinate politically,” a senior government official said.

The prime minister has also spoken about the differences he has experienced compared to his time as chief cabinet secretary. “It’s incredible how little information I get now,” Suga reportedly told one of his Cabinet ministers.

During talks between the government and the ruling bloc over raising medical fees for people aged 75 and above, Komeito objected to Suga’s proposal, bringing things to a standstill. The issue was eventually resolved through direct talks between Suga and Komeito chief representative Natsuo Yamaguchi.

On Tuesday, Yamaguchi revealed that during the meeting, “We agreed to consider ways to hold discussions so things wouldn’t reach a state where the prime minister or ruling party leaders were making the final decision.”

■ Politics and money

Suga has also struggled to deal with political and financial scandals involving lawmakers close to him, including the indictment of Katsuyuki Kawai, a House of Representatives member and former justice minister, and his wife Anri, a House of Councilors member, over vote-buying in last year’s upper house election, and allegations that LDP member Takamori Yoshikawa, a former farm minister, received money from a person in the egg industry. The prime minister has also become embroiled in issues surrounding dinner functions on the eve of cherry blossom viewing parties hosted by Abe.

People in the ruling parties believe Suga wants to get the pandemic under control, successfully hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and then in autumn dissolve the House of Representatives for a general election. However, concern is widespread among LDP members. If the number of coronavirus cases does not decrease, and Suga is burdened with economic stagnation and a low approval rating, “He might be forced into dissolving [the lower house]” a mid-ranking LDP member said.