Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga said on Friday he would step down, ending a one-year tenure marred by an unpopular Covid-19 response and rapidly dwindling public support.
Mr Suga, who took over after Shinzo Abe resigned last September, citing ill health, has seen his support ratings sink to below 30 per cent as Japan struggles with its worst wave of Covid-19 infections ahead of a general election this year.
Mr Suga’s decision to not run in a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) election in September means the party will choose a new leader, who will become prime minister.
Before Mr Abe - Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, with an eight-year tenure - the country had gone through six prime ministers in as many years, including Mr Abe’s own troubled first one-year tenure.
Japan’s Nikkei average futures jumped 2 per cent immediately after media reports’ that Mr Suga would not run, while the broader Topix Index extended its gains and hit its highest levels since 1991 following the news.
“I want to focus on coronavirus response, so I told the LDP executive meeting that I’ve decided not to run in the party leadership race,” Mr Suga told reporters.
“There’s immense energy needed to tackle both coronavirus response and preparation for the leadership race,” he added. “I judged that I cannot juggle both and I should concentrate on either of them.”
Mr Suga addressed a scrum of journalists for less than two minutes at his office and left the venue amid shouts for more explanation. He said he would hold a news conference as early as next week.
The address ended a rollercoaster week in which Mr Suga pulled out all the stops to save his job, from suggestions he would sack his long-term ally as party secretary general, to plans to call a snap election and reshuffle party executive and his cabinet.
Officials from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said Mr Suga would finish his term as its president, meaning he would stay on until his successor is chosen in party-wide election on September 29th.
The winner of the contest is all but assured of being premier because of the LDP’s majority in the lower house. The government has been considering holding the general election on October 17th.
The LDP-led coalition is not expected to lose its majority in the powerful lower house, but forecasts suggest that Mr Suga’s party could lose the majority that it holds on its own, an outcome that would weaken whoever is leading the LDP.
Mr Suga’s image as a savvy political operator capable of pushing through reforms and taking on the stodgy bureaucracy propelled his support to 74 per cent when he took office.
Initially, populist promises such as lower mobile phone rates and insurance for fertility treatments were applauded. But removing scholars critical of the government from an advisory panel and compromising with a junior coalition partner on policy for healthcare costs for the elderly drew criticism.
His delay in halting the “Go To” domestic travel programme - which experts say may have helped spread coronavirus around Japan - hit hard, while the public grew weary of states of emergency that hurt businesses. – Reuters