Support for Japan's PM Suga slides as Covid-19 shadows Tokyo Games

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga came in fifth in the Nikkei's survey of preferred next prime ministers. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Millions of Japanese watched the Olympics opening ceremony and many are cheering on their athletes, but the shadow of Covid-19 is so far preventing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga from getting a boost in his soggy support ahead of an election this year.

Voter support for Mr Suga slid nine points to 34 per cent, its lowest since he took office last September, a July 23-25 Nikkei business daily survey showed on Monday (July 26).

The Games, postponed last year by the pandemic, opened on Friday.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the country's roll-out of coronavirus vaccinations was not going well.

The programme has been hampered by a slow start and supply snarls, and less than a quarter are fully vaccinated.

Mr Suga's dream scenario had been to contain the virus outbreak, preside over a successful Games and call a general election. That was upended after a surge in Covid-19 infections led to a fourth state of emergency in Tokyo and forced Olympic organisers to ban spectators from almost all venues.

Japan has had some cheering news from the Games, taking a total of five gold medals - including a historic two in judo by Uta Abe and her brother Hifumi on Sunday, as well as one silver medal.

Mr Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services, said the opening ceremony was watched by more than 70 million people in Japan, making it the most watched event in the last decade.

Organisers were keeping a wary eye on tropical storm Nepartak, which was heading towards Japan's east coast and forecast to pass to the north of Tokyo.

They said there was currently no plan to reschedule further events. Tuesday's rowing programme was disrupted, with races rescheduled for later in the week. Monday's rowing events were moved to Sunday in anticipation of the storm.

Worries about contagion

Many Japanese fear the influx of athletes and officials for the global sporting event will add to the surge in infections, and 31 per cent in the Nikkei survey said the Games, postponed last year because of the pandemic, should be cancelled or postponed again.

Fifty-six per cent said Japan's border steps for incoming Olympics athletes and officials were "inappropriate", the Nikkei survey showed. The Games are being held under tight quarantine rules to prevent the spread of infections, but a number of cases have emerged involving athletes and others.

Olympics organisers reported 16 new Games-related Covid-19 cases on Monday, bringing the total since July 1 to 148.

The Dutch rowing team's performance director said the team had agreed to separate itself from other competitors after one of its athletes, a coach and a staff member all tested positive for Covid-19.

A strict "playbook" setting out rules to avoid contagion mandates frequent testing for the virus, restricted movements and wearing of masks by athletes and others in most situations.

The International Olympic Committee said on Sunday, however, that athletes can briefly take off their masks on the podium for 30 seconds for a photo opportunity, as several did after their wins on the day.

Japanese residents have been encouraged to watch the Games on TV to help prevent the virus from spreading.

But fans assembled at the open air triathlon route on the island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, on Monday in defiance of Olympic staff carrying signs asking them not to gather.

Mr Suga took over as premier after predecessor Shinzo Abe quit, citing ill health, ending a tenure that lasted nearly eight years, making him Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

Commenting on his soggy support, Mr Suga told monthly magazine Hanada, "I am confident what I am doing is not mistaken. That will not waver," Kyodo reported.

Mr Suga's term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president expires in September and an election for Parliament's powerful Lower House must be held by November.

Mr Suga came in fifth in the Nikkei's survey of preferred next prime ministers, with just 5 per cent backing him.

Mr Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine roll-out, topped the list but his rating slipped four points to 19 per cent, virtually tied with former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba. Next in line were Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi at 12 per cent and Mr Abe at 6 per cent.

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