By Titli Basu *
Political winds are blowing in Japan as two key elections approach: the presidential election of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September and the election of the Lower House as its term ends in October. It would be interesting to see how Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s political future unfolds as he navigates domestic politics – balancing public health during a pandemic and the dream of the Olympics on the one hand, and the vaccination campaign. and economic recovery on the other hand. What will be the most immediate decisive questions as Japan heads to a snap election, most likely in September? How do factional alignments take shape within the ruling PLD? And how are the kingmakers positioned within the party?
Prime Minister Suga took office in September 2020 following the sudden decision of his predecessor Abe Shinzo to leave Kantéi due to health issues. Taking responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of people in the midst of a raging global pandemic, especially with an election looming the following year, was certainly not an enviable position. In his first political speech to the Diet in October 2020, Prime Minister Suga categorically stated that one of his main priorities is to organize a successful Olympic Games to demonstrate victory over the COVID-19.1 pandemic with a rate of d With 70 percent approval last year, public confidence in his administration has plummeted with three states of emergency since then. As several prefectures in Japan emerge from the third state of emergency and some remain in near emergency in the wake of the Olympics, Suga’s political future is in balance with the approach of two key elections. As the Games approach and after the elections, his public approval rating stands at 37% in both NHK2 and The Yomiuri Shimbun3 surveys in June, 33% in The Asahi Shimbun survey4 and 31 percent in the Mainichi Shimbun-Social Survey Research Center survey in May 5
As Japan hosts the mega-sporting event — the Olympic Games (July 23-August 8) and the Paralympics (August 24-September 5) — one of Prime Minister Suga’s crucial responsibilities would be to ensure that the nation’s much-vaunted “Salvage and The Reconstruction Games” doesn’t turn into a super broadcast event. To this end, the vaccination campaign has taken on a new urgency. Suga has set clear goals and aims to vaccinate everyone over 65 by the end of July. Japan has reached the goal of one million vaccines per day and has set up mass vaccination centers in Tokyo and Osaka run by the Self-Defense Forces. With an effective vaccination and a successful Olympics, Prime Minister Suga could succeed in gaining public confidence in his administration before going to the elections.
The timing of early elections is also an important decision. The ideal situation for Prime Minister Suga would be to call an early election in September, after the Paralympic Games. On the one hand, this will give it two crucial months to step up its vaccination campaign and ensure public health, on the other hand, a successful Olympic Games will strengthen Japan’s pride as a host country and generate positive public sentiment; both conditions are absolutely crucial for Suga to succeed in obtaining a public mandate in favor of the LDP in the lower house elections. However, it should be noted that not all variables are under its control. How the Delta variant is unleashed as 15,000 athletes and several thousand officials enter Japan during the Games will have a direct influence on the outcome of the election.
The stakes are high because Japan has no way out of the Olympics; the cost and complexity of the Olympics contract outweighs opinion polls expressing public reservations about hosting the Games. A recent poll indicates that nearly 86% of those polled are concerned about a possible increase in COVID-19 cases if the Games are held. In addition, Shigeru Omi, who heads the government panel on the response to COVID-19, also weighed in saying that it was “unusual” to host the games in the midst of the pandemic. The Tokyo Medical Association has urged the government to reconsider the organization of the Games. A few business leaders have also expressed concerns, however, the decision on the Olympics is beyond the purview of Prime Minister Suga. The contract between the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Japanese Olympic Committee states that the decision to cancel the Games rests solely with the IOC. Even though the IOC has the power to cancel the Games in the event that there is “reasonable cause” to assess whether the safety of participants would be “seriously threatened or compromised”, 6 the financial stakes are enormous since it devotes 90% of its income to sports federations and national Olympic committees. Billions of dollars signed in license fees further complicate the problem.
The once postponed Tokyo Games cost around $ 15.4 billion7, double the original estimate of $ 7.3 billion when Japan won the bid in 2013. The one-year delay has cost $ 2.8 billion. Meanwhile, some media estimates suggest the Olympics would cost around US $ 25 billion.8 The Olympics were an opportunity for Japan not only to steer foreign tourism, but also to boost investment in construction. However, the economy will have to absorb the breach in the tourism industry as the pandemic has forced Japan to restrict foreign spectators during the Games. An estimate by the Nomura Research Institute argued that while canceling the Games would cost Japan around US $ 17 billion, the economic losses would be far greater if a new state of emergency was imposed.9
Prime Minister Suga is therefore betting on a rapid vaccination. However, Japan lags relatively behind the G7 powers with just 9.2% of the population fully vaccinated and 11% partially vaccinated (through June 24, 2021), compared to 48% fully vaccinated in the UK, 45. 50% in the United States, 35 percent in Germany, 29 percent in Italy and 26 percent in Canada.10 This is mainly due to additional national testing and two-stage approval, initially by the Agency Japanese Pharmaceutical and Medical Devices (PMDA) and monitored by the Ministry of Health’s expert panel, delayed the rollout for a few months.11 On top of that, the Japanese have shown low confidence in vaccines , drawing on their previous experiences.12 However, in the wake of the Olympics, the vaccination campaign gained momentum.
Since an early election is expected to follow the Olympics, the politics of LDP factions are likely to come into play. Even though Prime Minister Suga was not affiliated with any faction, in the September 2020 election he managed to gain the support of five of the seven key factions of the PLD. So what has changed since then? As Suga’s main contenders last year, the position of former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio and former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru has eroded. Kishida’s position has been diluted following the result of the Upper House by-election in Hiroshima, and Ishiba’s position is fragile with a few members leaving his faction. But, ahead of the party’s presidential election this time, Suga must also take into account that unlike last time, grassroots members will be part of the process.
In the snap elections, the kingmakers of the PLD, including former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro and Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro, will support Prime Minister Suga to avoid any contradictory messages to the public and consolidate a two-thirds majority in lower house elections. But how factional politics take shape in the party’s presidential election remains to be seen. An ideal situation for Suga will be to secure a victory for the LDP in the crucial lower house elections, which will further strengthen his position as party chairman. Meanwhile, it’s important to keep an eye on how Abe is positioning himself again in the game. Although he supports Suga, he has also indicated a preference for Foreign Minister ToshimitsuMotegi, the chief secretary of the game. Cabinet Katsunobu Kato, Head of Political Research Hakubun Shimomura and former Foreign Minister Kishida as Suga’s successor13. Administrative affairs Kono Taro, Environment Minister Koizumi Shinjiro and former Defense Minister Ishiba top the rankings. But electing the LDP is all about maneuvering factional politics rather than popular support.
As Suga heads to two key elections, he has stood out for his drive to digitize and decarbonize domestic politics and show Japan’s leadership on global platforms, be it the G7 summit or the Quad. . He also said he was the first foreign leader to be greeted by President Joseph Biden after the changing of the guard in Washington. As he seeks public office with only a one-year ballot in the midst of a pandemic, Suga’s political future hinges on rapid inoculation and successful Olympics.
* About the author: Titli Basu is an associate researcher at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis.
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis
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- 2.“The highest disapproval rate for Cabinet Suga since inception”, NHK, June 14, 2021.
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- 6.“Host city contract 2020”, Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Office Preparation, 2013.
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- 8. Stephen Wade, “Official costs of the Tokyo Olympics up 22% to $ 15.4 billion”, The Associated Press, December 22, 2020.
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- 11.Tomohiro Osaki, “How National Clinical Trials Slow Down Vaccine Approval Process in Japan”, The Japan Times, May 12, 2021.
- 12.Kenta Noguchi, “Study: Japan Among Countries With Lowest Confidence In Vaccines”, The Asahi Shimbun, September 29, 2020.
- 13.“Abe names four senior lawmakers as possible candidates to succeed Suga”, The Japan Times, May 27, 2021.