Leadership race in Japan heats up after PM Suga's shock decision to quit

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has seen his support ratings sink to below 30 per cent as the nation struggles with its worst wave of Covid-19 infections. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - The race is on to succeed Mr Yoshihide Suga as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Prime Minister of Japan, after his shock decision on Friday (Sept 3) not to seek re-election in a poll for the party presidency this month.

At least six names have emerged to become Mr Suga's successor as LDP chief and hence Prime Minister since the party has a clear majority in both chambers of Parliament.

The LDP presidential poll is slated for Sept 29.

The frontrunners appear to be administrative reform minister Taro Kono, 58, who is popular among the public and said on Friday that he intends to run, as well as former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 64, who on Thursday unveiled his campaign policy platform including massive Covid-19 relief.

Mr Suga's decision was an abrupt reversal after days of insisting that he would "naturally" be seeking re-election.

He told reporters on Friday that fighting Covid-19 remained his priority.

"Since I became Prime Minister a year ago, dealing with Covid-19 has been at the forefront of my efforts," the 72-year-old said, without taking questions.

"Dealing with the virus while campaigning will take a huge amount of energy. I realise I cannot do both, and I should choose to fulfil my promise to the Japanese public to protect lives," he said, adding that he will answer questions in a press conference next week.

A state of emergency that is scheduled to be lifted on Sept 12 will likely be extended by at least two weeks, media reports said, given the dire Covid-19 situation in Japan.

Markets soared on Friday following the news, suggesting tepid sentiment among investors towards the Prime Minister and high hopes for a stronger government.

The broad Topix index closed up 1.6 per cent, after climbing as much as 1.8 per cent to hit a three-decade high. The blue-chip Nikkei 225 index closed up 2.05 per cent, at its highest level since June.

The news sent shockwaves through the LDP, as Mr Suga appeared to have kept the decision to step down very close to his chest.

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Secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai, who backed Mr Suga to become LDP chief and Prime Minister last year, said: "To be honest, I am surprised. But I believe he came to this decision after thinking about it deeply."

Mr Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe called the decision "regrettable", and said he was grateful to Mr Suga for his dedicated service.

The fight to replace Mr Suga intensified on Friday. Besides Mr Kono and Mr Kishida, other names in the fray include two former Internal Affairs Ministers, Sanae Takaichi, 60, and Seiko Noda, 61, though there are doubts over whether they can secure the 20 signatures required for candidacy.

LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura, 67, and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, 64, also said they were thinking about throwing their hats into the ring.

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The LDP presidential race comes ahead of a general election that is rumoured for Oct 17, with Nomination Day on Oct 5, just days before the four-year term of the Lower House will expire on Oct 21.

Mr Suga scored approval ratings of above 70 per cent when he succeeded Mr Abe, who stepped down due to a stress-induced chronic illness in September last year.

But his support has since nosedived to around 30 per cent over what has been perceived as a botched Covid-19 response. While he had hoped that public goodwill from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games would give him a boost, this support has failed to materialise over wider concerns among the people.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (front row, second from right) at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

The LDP lost three national by-elections in April, and had a worse-than-expected showing in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July. Last month, Mr Suga's close ally lost in the Yokohama mayoral race despite his backing.

This has led to perceptions within the LDP that the prime minister "cannot win elections". Rank-and-file members and junior lawmakers sought to distance themselves from him.

Mr Suga had until as late as Thursday insisted that he was intending to run in the party poll.

But political observers and media reports have noted an "air of desperation", as Mr Suga tried various tactics but failed to find one that would stick.

He has toyed with the idea of dissolving the Lower House next week, after the Paralympic Games close on Sunday. He has also mooted a reshuffle of Cabinet and LDP leadership positions next week with Mr Nikai, an influential party kingmaker, to be given the boot.

But this only served to incur an even greater backlash within the LDP.

"It's a bit like a sumo tournament and the Prime Minister is the yokozuna grand champion. If an incumbent Prime Minister cannot win easily - and with grace - then it is time to go," Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano told The Straits Times.

"It is not expected that a sitting Prime Minister will have to struggle to seek re-election within the LDP, and any risk of losing is already a red light."

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