Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to step down as leader at end of month

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday he won't run for leadership of the governing party at the end of this month, paving the way for a new Japanese leader after just a year in office.

Suga has faced criticism over a coronavirus response seen as too slow and for holding Olympics

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told executives of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Friday that he will not run for the leadership race set for Sept. 29, Japan's public broadcaster has reported. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Amid growing criticism of his handling of the pandemic, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday he won't run for the leadership of the governing party later this month, paving the way for a new Japanese leader after just a year in office.

Suga told reporters that leading Japan's pandemic response and campaigning to lead his governing Liberal Democratic Party at the same time divided his energies. "I have decided not to run for the party leadership elections, as I would like to focus on coronavirus measures," Suga told reporters who rushed to his office after the news broke.

Suga has faced criticism and nosediving public support over a coronavirus response seen as too slow and small and for holding the Olympics despite the public's health concerns. His hope of having the Olympic festivities help turn around his plunging popularity was also dashed.

He said he had put all his energy into important policies including the virus response since he took office.

"But doing both takes enormous energy and I have decided that I should just choose one or the other," he said. "As I have repeatedly told people, protecting people's lives and health is my responsibility as prime minister, and that's what I will dedicate myself to."

The Liberal Democrats and their coalition partner have a majority in Parliament, meaning whoever wins the Sept. 29 party vote is virtually guaranteed to become the new prime minister.

The official start of the campaign is Sept. 17. Candidacy requires factional support largely controlled by party heavyweights and their choices may not match those favoured in public opinion surveys.

Suga speaks during the Paralympic flame lighting ceremony on Aug. 20 in Tokyo. Suga enjoyed support ratings as high as 70 per cent early in his tenure. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Two Cabinet ministers in former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government have come out as potential candidates: dovish former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, currently seen as a top contender, and former interior minister Sanae Takaichi, who shares Abe's right-wing ideology.

Current Vaccinations Minister Taro Kono also expressed interest on Friday, saying he will make a final decision after consulting fellow lawmakers. Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, a favourite in media surveys, and Seiko Noda, former gender equality minister, also reportedly have expressed intentions to run.

Kishida has criticized Suga's handling of the pandemic and recently proposed a series of virus measures, including more funding, a pledge to secure more hospital beds and creation of a health crisis management agency to centralize pandemic measures.

Kono, the son of the longest-serving lower house speaker and grandson of a former deputy prime minister, is a political blue blood and has served as foreign and defence ministers. He regularly communicates on social media and is popular among younger voters.

Bid for fresh party leader

Suga's decision is largely seen as a political move so the LDP can have a fresh leader before national elections later this year. The lower house term ends in late October and elections for the new Parliament must be held by late November.

A newspaper with a front page story about Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's decision to not run for the leadership of the governing party is seen being handed out in Tokyo on Friday. (Hiro Komae/The Associated Press)

Suga took office in mid-September a year ago after Abe resigned due to health problems, to fill in the rest of his three-year term.

The son of a strawberry farmer from Japan's northern prefecture of Akita, Suga enjoyed support ratings as high as 70 per cent early in his tenure because he was a leader from the common people rather than blue-blood political families like Abe.

Suga introduced a series of pragmatic measures including digital transformation and administrative reforms, but his support ratings slid quickly over his coronavirus measures as Japan's outbreak got worse.

His downfall started late last year when he bumbled a travel promotion campaign as the pandemic was worsening. He was forced into declaring a state of emergency in January and has since repeatedly expanded and extended the emergency measures, most recently until Sept. 12. In the latest media surveys, his support ratings have declined to around 26 per cent.

"Being forced to live under restrictions, people have become increasingly frustrated, and their dissatisfaction is nearing its peak, and that's the biggest reason causing Suga's administration to end," the Mainichi newspaper commented.

Slow vaccine rollout

The emergency has largely focused on requests for eateries to close early and not serve alcohol, while requests for people to stay home and social distance have largely been ignored.

Suga has been criticized for presenting an overly optimistic outlook on the pandemic and for not sending convincing messages to the people to convey the sense of crisis. His vaccine-dependent policies also exposed people to risks while the vaccination campaign faced delays.

Although the pace of new cases in Tokyo has somewhat slowed, experts say a resurgence can happen any time and the health care system is under severe pressure with hospitals filled with serious cases and tens of thousands of sick people recovering at home.