Covid-19 proves to be Achilles heel for Japan PM Suga

Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga announced that emergency measures in Japan would be extended to Sept 30.
Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga announced that emergency measures in Japan would be extended to Sept 30.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - The difficult decision not to lift a state of emergency for Covid-19 apparently weighed heavily on outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who last week announced that he would not run for re-election in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election.

Mr Suga had hoped to lift the restrictions as planned on Sunday (Sept 12), five days ahead of nomination day for the LDP poll.

This would have conveyed a sense that the situation was under control and perhaps boosted his flagging ratings in time to convince the party that he was the best man to lead them into a general election due by November.

In his first remarks to the press since the decision to bow out, he told reporters at a news conference on Thursday: "I tried to go through numerous simulations and I looked at various situations. All the time I was thinking that lifting the state of emergency on Sept 12 would be difficult."

Mr Suga on Thursday announced that the emergency measures would be extended by 18 days to Sept 30 - overlapping the entire duration of the LDP poll from nomination day on Sept 17 to voting day on Sept 29.

Insisting that the extension was to fulfil his promise to the public to curb Covid-19 infections, he reiterated that a "mammoth effort" was needed to manage the disease and to campaign for the LDP presidential election concurrently - especially for someone like him who did not belong to any party faction.

This was why he decided not to contest, Mr Suga said. As the LDP is the ruling party with majorities in both chambers of the Diet or Parliament, its leader is usually chosen as the prime minister.

Even so, reports emerged on Thursday that he was planning a visit to Washington - his second this year - at the end of this month for a hastily arranged in-person Quad summit with US President Joe Biden and his Australian and Indian counterparts, Mr Scott Morrison and Mr Narendra Modi.

Mr Suga did not give weight to these source-based reports on Thursday. The plan has been slammed by the opposition as inappropriate considering his "lame duck status" and his hitherto pledges to stick around to oversee Covid-19 countermeasures.

Through his stoic facade at Thursday's news conference, he also refused to give weight to theories that have been floated that he was stepping aside because of a political quagmire, having lost clout both with the LDP and the public.

Lawmakers dread the prospect of battling for votes with Mr Suga as the party's face. The public, weary of emergency restrictions, has sent Mr Suga's approval ratings plunging to new depths to about 30 per cent, from 70 per cent when he first took office last September.

But on his future plans, Mr Suga said he still intends to run for re-election as a Lower House lawmaker in his bailiwick of Yokohama, where his close ally was trounced in mayoral elections last month.

In a seemingly valedictory news conference, he sought to shine a light on his accomplishments over the past year, noting such achievements as the successful Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the launch of the Digital Agency last week, the lowering of mobile phone fees, as well as the setting of ambitious climate targets.

Yet all of these have been dwarfed by Covid-19.

He defended his decisions when asked by The Straits Times if he might have done anything differently, such as by imposing stronger measures that could have reduced the need for protracted states of emergency that have lost the understanding of the public.

"We wanted to minimise the impact on people's livelihoods, and so the focused approach was very important," he said, noting the measures targeting the food and beverage industry even as these were seen as ineffective in stopping people from going out unnecessarily.

"We have taken a different approach from other countries, and it is very difficult to impose a lockdown here in Japan and difficult to ban people from going out."