TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday that he will not run in the leadership elections of the ruling center-right party this month, suggesting he will step down as the country’s leader after just a year.
72-year-old Suga struggled with low levels of public approval for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and for pushing ahead with the Tokyo Olympics this summer against objections from health experts and much of the public.
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In a surprise announcement following a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party, Suga said he wanted to focus on fighting the spread of the coronavirus in Japan, which is experiencing its worst outbreak of the pandemic.
“When I was planning to run for the presidency, thinking about the corona measures and the election campaign, it was clear to me that a lot of energy would be needed, that I couldn’t have both and that I had to choose one or the other . ” he said.
Japan reports record numbers of virus cases, averaging nearly 20,000 a day. Tokyo, the capital, is in a state of emergency along with 20 of the country’s 47 prefectures.
In July, Suga’s party failed to win a majority in a Tokyo local election, which was seen as a key indicator of voter attitudes. It also lost a mayoral election in Yokohama last month.
Although the Liberal Democrats are expected to prevail in a general election due this fall, several party members have reportedly raised concerns that they could suffer heavy losses in the lower house of parliament.
The election of a new prime minister would likely help the party’s election, said Harukata Takenaga, a professor at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Suga has had several successes in office, Takenaga said, including the declaration that Japan will be carbon neutral by 2050, the establishment of a new government agency to promote digitization, and the alignment of the United States, India and Australia to a meeting of the “Quad” – Group of nations.
But Suga “wasn’t really effective at fighting the Covid-19 outbreak,” Takenaga said, although vaccinations have picked up recently after a slow start.
Although pre-Olympics polls showed that a majority of the Japanese public wanted it to be canceled or postponed, Takenaga said general satisfaction with the outcome was “so I’m not really sure if this decision to hold the Olympics” is the order of the day Cabinet approval rating really undermined. “
In a pre-Games interview with NBC News, Suga admitted that it was difficult to sell the Olympics to the Japanese public amid the pandemic.
With the Liberal Democrats having a parliamentary majority, the winner of the party chairman election on September 29 is expected to succeed Suga as prime minister. Candidates must announce their intention to run by September 17th.
Fumio Kishida, the former foreign minister, and Sanae Takaichi, the former interior minister, have announced that they will run for office. If Suga is out of the running, other candidates may show up.
Opposition leaders criticized Suga’s resignation as irresponsible.
“I am extremely angry that it has come to this point with no clear vision in sight,” said Yukio Edano, chairman of the Constitutional Democratic Party.
The Nikkei 225 stock index ended the day up 2 percent.
Suga’s brief tenure suggests a possible return to the history of high turnover at the helm of the most important US ally.
Suga took over Shinzo Abe in September 2020, who resigned for health reasons just days after breaking the record as Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
When Abe took office in 2012, he became Japan’s sixth Prime Minister in as many years, including his own one-year term.
Arata Yamamoto reported from Tokyo, and Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong.
The Associated Press contributed.