Suga Calls Time on a Truly Miserable Year Running Japan
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Who wants to be a national leader in the pandemic era? Yoshihide Suga declared he was done after a year and relinquished leadership of Japan, which is wrestling with an inconsistent economic recovery and soaring infections. Governing in the Covid years is especially fraught for premiers that lack a popular mandate; it’s hard enough for those who actually won elections.
Suga may go down in history as the guy who had the misfortune to rise from the Liberal Democratic Party backroom, only to get lumbered with an Olympic Games that Japanese were deeply ambivalent about and the delta variant. His brief administration was an asterisk to the eight years of Shinzo Abe, who was Japan’s longest serving prime minister and Suga’s mentor.
The games themselves, which Abe had hoped to preside over until illness caused him to stand down in August 2020, weren’t the disaster that many feared. That low bar did nothing for Suga’s popularity, which began crumbling soon after he took the baton from Abe. The economy, the world’s third largest, is stop-start. A robust recovery last year began to run out of steam as infections soared and commercially vital parts of the country instituted restrictions on social and business life.
The LDP now can head to national elections in a few months with a fresh face. Suga was the necessary sacrifice to boost the party’s prospects. By announcing Friday he won’t contest the coming internal party leadership ballot, Suga bowed out as head of government. The LDP’s majority in parliament is formidable, but that was a product of Abe’s dominance. There’s little prospect the party, which has led most governments since the end of World War II, will be defeated. Under Suga, there was a probability of it losing some ground, however. His possible successors include Taro Kono, the government’s vaccine czar and also a former foreign minister, as well as Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister.
As the election approaches, it’s likely the party will resort to one of its favorite rituals: more fiscal stimulus and pork barrel projects. Japanese stocks jumped to a three-decade high on the announcement of Suga’s departure.
Suga said he couldn’t simultaneously campaign and combat Covid. “I realized I couldn’t do both and I should choose one,” he said in a statement. Wrestling with the virus is a stretch for any politician, anywhere at the peak of their game. But Suga’s comments are also self-serving: There was a chance he would be toppled in the party ballot. And prime minister’s aren’t priests. They sit at the apex of vast bureaucracies, yes, but the job of a leader in a democracy is to marshal support for programs, present choices and win the debate. Is Suga saying that Covid has redefined the job description of leaders to the extent that they need to be circus performers or mandarins?
As the pandemic approaches its second anniversary, it’s collecting political scalps. Muhyiddin Yassin, who quit as prime minister of Malaysia last month, was felled by Covid and no small degree of parliamentary intrigue. Like Suga, Muhyiddin came to power between general elections. They got roughed up by the health crisis without the kind of legitimacy the ballot box can deliver — but even that is no guarantee. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing an unexpectedly tight race for re-election. In Australia, next year’s poll looks wide open; the opposition Labor Party is making headway despite being almost written off after a shock loss in 2019.
Asia was supposed to have been handling the pandemic better than most, an argument that had some credibility in 2020. However the second year offers a less impressive story of vaccine delays, a carousel of lockdowns and re-openings and electoral tribulations at the hands of cranky electorates. Japan is but one that failed to capitalize on a reasonable initial response to Covid. Or maybe the impressive beginning sowed conditions for an inglorious second inning.
Japanese politics over the past few decades has been characterized by a series of short-term leaders punctuated by a very few with staying power — Junichiro Koizumi and Abe were in the latter camp. Suga picked the wrong time for his turn in the revolving door.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.
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