Japan’s Suga Quits as Premier, Throwing Open Succession Race
(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced plans to resign after failing to control the country’s coronavirus surge, with two former foreign ministers seen as leading the pack to take over, weeks before a general election.
In a surprise announcement, Suga told reporters Friday he couldn’t campaign for re-election as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party this month while battling the virus, ending his premiership almost exactly a year after it started. Whoever becomes the next LDP leader is virtually assured of becoming prime minister due to the party’s dominance in parliament.
“Since I became prime minister a year ago, dealing with coronavirus has been at the center of my efforts,” Suga, 72, said in a brief statement without taking questions. “Dealing with the virus while campaigning for the election would take a huge amount of energy. I realized I couldn’t do both and I should choose one.”
Japanese stocks climbed on hopes the next prime minister would favor expanding economic stimulus, with at least one contender for Suga’s job -- former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, 64 -- supporting more spending to soften the pandemic’s blow. The Topix gauge jumped 1.6%, closing at its highest level since 1991.
Suga’s resignation amplified speculation about possible replacements. Vaccine czar Taro Kono -- a 58-year-old former foreign minister -- plans to seek the LDP presidency, broadcaster TBS and other media reported. Kono told reporters he would consult with colleagues before making a decision to run.
Kono and Kishida have first-hand experience in negotiating with the U.S., Japan’s sole military ally, and China, the country’s biggest trading partner. Suga entered the premiership as a diplomatic novice, and as premier, offered support for President Joe Biden as he tried to line up allies for a united front to the security threats posed by China.
Public opinion polls have also shown support for Shigeru Ishiba, 64, a former defense minister. Ex-Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi has also said she wants to run and be the first woman to serve as prime minister.
If the LDP holds to pattern, potential candidates will likely spend the next few days talking to bosses of powerful factions within the party, who have great sway in the formation of a government.
Suga’s approval ratings plummeted over his handling of Japan’s worst-yet wave of virus cases, which coincided with the Tokyo Olympics. In recent weeks, he had seen a series of alarming setbacks, including a loss by one of his allies last month in an election for mayor of Yokohama, the city where he began his political career.
“The current prime minister is walking out because I think he’s sick and tired of excessive pressure from these corona-related issues,” Seijiro Takeshita, a professor at the University of Shizuoka who specializes in international business management and comparative governance, told Bloomberg Television. “It’s going to be a very colorful election because they think it will be a very good chance for them to have the seat of prime minister.”
Suga decided not to seek a new term as leader after his efforts to reshuffle the ruling party’s executive team faced resistance, Kyodo News reported, citing a person close to the prime minister’s office.
“To be honest, I’m surprised,” LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai told reporters earlier Friday. “But I believe he came to this decision after thinking about it deeply.” Nikai, a powerful backroom broker, had been listed as one person who could lose his post, Kyodo and other local media reported.
Suga took over as prime minister on Sept. 16, 2020, hoping to avoid a return to the days of revolving-door leaders after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, became Japan’s longest-tenured premier. But corruption scandals, the sluggish Covid response and public opposition to holding the Olympics took their toll.
Abe, who’s still a lawmaker, said Friday that his successor and former top aide had performed “admirably,” Jiji Press reported.
Suga has faced widespread criticism of his handling of the pandemic. While the country has succeeded in keeping its death toll at a fraction of the level seen in many other developed nations, a shortage of hospital beds and reports of people dying from the virus at home have sparked anxiety among the public.
Japan must hold a general election by the end of November, in which the ruling coalition is likely to remain in power despite losing seats. Support for the main opposition party is mired in single digits.
The procedural requirements of appointing a new prime minister could make it difficult to hold an election before Oct. 21, Kishida told the Nikkei newspaper. Kishida separately told Bloomberg News in an interview Friday that he was concerned about friction with China, predicting that tension in the Taiwan Strait would “will be the next big problem” for Japan.
Kono, the vaccine czar, is not only popular, but a member of Finance Minister Taro Aso’s powerful faction.
“I don’t expect a meaningful change in Japan’s fiscal, monetary and economic policies even after Suga steps down,” said Kyohei Morita, chief Japan economist at Credit Agricole Securities Asia.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.