TOKYO: Amid growing criticism of his handling of the pandemic, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Friday he won’t run for the leadership of the governing party later this month, paving the way for a new Japanese leader after just a year in office.
Suga told reporters that heading Japans pandemic response and campaigning to lead his governing Liberal Democratic Party at the same time divided his energies. “I have decided not to run for the party leadership elections, as I would like to focus on coronavirus measures,” Suga told reporters who rushed to his office after the news broke.
Suga has faced criticism and nosediving public support over a coronavirus response seen as too slow and limited and for holding the Olympics despite the public’s health concerns. His hope of having the Olympic festivities help turn around his plunging popularity was also dashed.
He said he had put all his energy into important issues including the virus response since he took office.
But doing both takes enormous energy and I have decided that I should just choose one or the other, he said. “As I have repeatedly said, protecting people’s lives and health is my responsibility as prime minister, and that’s what I will dedicate myself to.”
The Liberal Democrats and their coalition partner have a majority in parliament, meaning whoever wins the Sept. 29 party vote is virtually guaranteed to become the new prime minister.
The official start of the party campaign is Sept 17. Candidacy requires factional support largely controlled by party heavyweights, and their choices may not match those favored in public opinion surveys.
Two Cabinet ministers in former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s government have come out as potential candidates: dovish former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, currently seen as a top contender, and former Interior Minister Sanae Takaichi, who shares Abe’s rightwing ideology.
Current Vaccinations Minister Taro Kono also expressed interest on Friday, saying he will make a final decision after consulting fellow lawmakers. Former Defence Miniter Shigeru Ishiba, a favorite in media surveys, and Seiko Noda, former gender equality minister, also reportedly have expressed intentions to run.
Kishida has criticised Suga’s handling of the pandemic and recently proposed a series of virus measures, including more funding, a pledge to secure more hospital beds and creation of a health crisis management agency to centralize pandemic measures.
Kono, the son of the longest-serving lower house speaker and grandson of a former deputy prime minister, is a political blue blood and has served as foreign and defence ministers. He regularly communicates on social media and is popular among younger voters.
Suga’s decision is largely seen as a political move so the party can have a fresh leader before national elections later this year. The lower house term ends in late October and elections must be held by late November.
Suga took office last September after Abe resigned due to health problems, to fill in the remainder of Abe’s term.
Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2021