Slow vaccinations, impending Games complicate political calendar

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, right, and Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai prepare for an LDP board meeting in the Diet Building on Monday.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, will have his hands full in reinforcing his administration in the wake of the ruling parties’ triple setback to opposition parties in Sunday’s Diet elections.

Suga will likely put all his efforts into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and hosting the Tokyo Olympics and then dissolve the House of Representatives to call a snap election in autumn, before lower house members’ terms expire in October.

Amid the uncertainty of the infection situation and vaccination progress, the prime minister is facing a difficult task.

Vaccination hope

“We humbly accept the judgment of the people,” Suga told reporters Monday at the Prime Minister’s Office. “We will scrutinize our policies and correct what needs to be corrected.”

The election loss in the conservative Hiroshima prefectural constituency of the House of Councillors has led many in the administration to believe that voters have a harsh view of the LDP, making it difficult to promptly dissolve the lower house and hold a general election.

The prime minister told those around him, “The only way is to have our work proudly evaluated.” He is eager to regain his hold on affairs by passing a related bill for the establishment of a digital agency and curbing the increase in new infection cases.

However, it is hard to predict how effective the current state of emergency for Tokyo and three Kansai prefectures to control the flow of people will be.

A high-ranking government official expressed concerns, saying, “The conventional method of targeting restaurants and bars is not working this time, creating the most unpleasant situation.”

Government relief of ¥200,000 per day to a large commercial facility that cooperates with suspending its business during the emergency as well as ¥20,000 per day to each shop within the facility are said to be such a low amount as to be negligible.

“We are getting a bad reputation,” Suga said Monday to a senior Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry official he met at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Even the hope of vaccinations has not progressed as envisioned.

Suga gave a strict order to administrative reform minister Taro Kono to complete the vaccination of the elderly in July. However, the capacity to handle vaccinations differs depending on municipalities, and it is uncertain that the vaccination will proceed as the government intends.

Suga at one point was said to have sought to complete the vaccination of the elderly in June. A person in charge of vaccine policy said: “The prime minister is very impatient. Even July is a long shot.”

No other choice

As for the timing of the lower house dissolution, there is talk about holding the election on the same day as the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July, but this idea is being opposed by Komeito, the LDP’s ruling coalition partner. Komeito places great importance on the Tokyo assembly election.

In addition, the prime minister’s decision to set July as a milestone for the vaccination has spurred arguments for an autumn dissolution.

“It would be irresponsible to launch an election before the vaccination of the elderly, which the prime minister himself has advocated, is completed,” an LDP heavyweight said.

The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are scheduled to take place from July through September.

“At the moment, there is a strong sense of caution among the public against holding the Games, but if they were successfully held, the mood in Japan will brighten, and that will give momentum to the election,” a senior LDP official said.

Some LDP members have begun distancing themselves from Suga, for example, by avoiding having a photo with Suga for their campaign poster.

Even so, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso are united in their support for Suga as they had played a leading role in the formation of the Suga administration.

Furthermore, LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai wants to maintain his influence and he considers that keeping Suga in office is the best way to do so.

The idea to have Suga unseated is unlikely to gain momentum for the time being.

“There are no candidates after Suga who are willing to risk their neck amid the pandemic,” a veteran party member said. “So we have no choice but to support Suga as we prepare for the lower house election.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun