Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday he will not run for reelection as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, effectively ending his broadly unpopular premiership just a year after it began.
Suga, whose political fate plummeted as he struggled to manage the coronavirus pandemic, made the announcement during a brief press conference in Tokyo.
The move raises the possibility Japan will return to a period of revolving-door prime ministers that marked much of the past several decades.
Suga took over as prime minister last September, when his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, stepped down for health reasons.
The self-made son of a strawberry farmer, Suga had deep connections within Japan’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party.
He was, however, unable to overcome widespread criticism -- both from the public and within the LDP -- about his pandemic approach.
Much of the criticism has centered on the decision to move ahead with the Tokyo Olympics this summer, despite widespread public opposition. Shortly after the Games began in late July, Japan saw its worst coronavirus outbreak yet.
The states of emergency put in place to quell the outbreak have had little effect. The number of COVID-19 cases continues to stay high by Japan’s standards, though its virus death rate remains relatively low compared to many other developed countries.
According to a recent poll by public broadcaster NHK, about 60% of Japanese people are unhappy with Suga’s response to the virus. About 57% of respondents said the Olympics were not carried out safely, as the government claimed. Many were also upset at Japan’s coronavirus vaccine effort, which has only recently begun to pick up pace.
In some ways, though, Suga’s bigger issue was his lack of communication skills, said Corey Wallace, who teaches at Japan’s Kanagawa University.
“And that’s just made it very hard for him to overcome all these little problems, all these little criticisms, all the doubts that people have about whether the government is fully in control or is just reacting to what comes up at any given time,” Wallace told VOA.
In a last-minute effort to salvage his premiership, Suga had planned to reshuffle his Cabinet. However, he failed to win the support of several influential LDP figures, many of whom were worried about their position ahead of an election for the lower house of the Diet that must occur by November.
Most experts say the LDP will retain a majority in the election. LDP confidence was shaken, however, when it performed poorly in several recent local elections. The public approval rating for Suga’s Cabinet had fallen to 29% in some polls.
Although Suga had only been slated for a one-year, caretaker premiership, some had hoped his time in office would last longer and prevent Japan from entering another extended period of political instability.
Suga predecessor Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, serving for eight years. In the 50 years before that, Japan had averaged a new prime minister about every two years. Many analysts now concede a new period of instability could emerge.
“It’s absolutely possible, especially if the pandemic gets worse again,” Wallace said. “But I wouldn’t necessarily proclaim the start of this era just yet.”
Among the likely frontrunners to replace Suga are former Defense and Foreign Affairs Minister Taro Kono, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, and current environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi.