By Ichiro Suzuki On September 3, Yoshihide Suga, Prime Minister of Japan has announced that he is not running for the upcoming election of the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The announcement has effectively ended Mr. Suga’s prime-ministership with only a year in office. A year ago, Mr. Suga succeeded Mr. Shinzo Abe’s party presidency as he stepped down for health reasons, to finish the final one year out of Mr. Abe's three-years as the LDP president. Mr. Suga had to be reelected in the party in order to stay on as PM. Mr. Abe served as PM for 7 years and 9 months, longer than anyone in the country’s history. Prior to his return as PM in December 2012, six men occupied the residence of PM in six years, beginning with Mr. Abe's first stint. Japan stands on the cusp of returning to a time of political instability that negatively affected the country’s international presence. Having arrived at a high approval rating in the fall of 2020, Mr. Suga began to suffer sinking popularity by the end of the year, from which he never recovered. Raging COVID-19 is the dominant reason behind falling approval ratings. Last November, Mr. Donald Trump failed to be reelected as the President of the United States. The pandemic played no small part in the failure since he always played down the threat of the coronavirus. (That said, he should be credited for Operation Warp Speed that accelerated vaccine development.) Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Suga took the pandemic seriously and made every effort sincerely to combat the pandemic. Though Japan was several months behind North America and Europe in the game of procuring COVID-19 vaccines, the government deployed vaccination infrastructure relatively quickly. Most of all who want it is going to be vaccinated by the end of this fall. This is an achievement that he can be proud of though voters don’t take it that way. This summer, voters thew their anger at Mr. Suga as Delta-variant infections surged while the Tokyo Olympics progressed. Most likely the Olympics had little to do with the surge. Approximately 120,000 foreign visitors, which is 1% of Tokyo’s population, came to the city for Olympics-related purposes. It is estimated that about 80% of them were vaccinated, a far higher rate than residents in the city, and were confined in a bubble. Athletes in particular had a strong incentive to act as requested by the ‘Play Book’ so as not to be banned from competition. While some of the media people might have misbehaved, such bad actors probably had negligible negative effects. There is no report that the Olympics became a super-spreader event, which was feared prior to the Games. Japanese athletes did very well in the Olympics. Medal count surged and the majority of people, or voters, enjoyed watching the Olympics on television. Nonetheless, the Games did nothing to lift Mr. Suga’s popularity. Mr. Suga failed to assess interaction of time value assigned on him and an unknown risk factor, which is the coronavirus. Upon his rise to power a year ago, Mr. Suga said that he would be focused on containing the coronavirus and had no plan to call a general election. The current four-year term for the House of Representative (the Lower House) runs through October 2021, that is next month. When he succeeded Mr. Abe as PM, three-quarters of the Lower House term had already lapsed, and an election would have to be held within a year. It is a prerogative of PM to call an election, dissolving the Lower House. At that time, the pandemic’s second wave was receding and life in Japan was almost normal. Tokyo and the metropolitan area were not under emergency, which has affected people’s life almost all the time in the first nine months of 2021. His approval rating at 70%+ was twice as high as what it is today. This fall, an election has to be held with infections many times the numbers witnessed a year before. Mr. Suga is a sincere and honest man. However, his good intention not only delivered nothing but backfired at him with soaring infections and sinking popularity. He obviously miscalculated the potency of COVID-19. He was too optimistic about a chance of getting the pandemic under control, within a limited time frame that was by the fall of 2021, but hopefully by the Olympics in July. However, the COVID-19 went into a totally different direction from what Mr. Suga’s good intention projected initially, and put him under intense pressure with the time running out. It was like an option value assigned on a certain asset going lower as the expiration date neared. Had he called an election under very favorable conditions last fall, voters would surely have given him and the LDP another four years (though he still had to be reelected as the LDP president in September 2021.) That would have made it possible for him to handle the pandemic under much lower pressure. He miscalculated these factors, failing to take COVID-19 as ‘known-unknown’. On the other hand, doing an election upon his arrival would have been ‘known-known’ whose outcome would not have deviated significantly from his projections. Mr. Suga made a wrong choice a year ago. Simply put, he was too nice, and too sincere, and didn’t like to be labeled as a self-centered opportunist. Britain’s current Prime Minister moved into 10 Downing Street in the summer of 2019 with three years left out of the House of Commons’ five-year term. Several months later, half way through the Lower House’s term, Mr. Boris Johnson called an early election near the end of the year, seeking voters’ support as the Brexit negotiation was entering its final stretch. The election turned out to be a landslide for Mr. Johnson and the Tories. The election result had materially reduced noise associated with the Brexit deal, and gave Mr. Johnson a near free hand. It brought luck to him, too. A month after the election, the coronavirus pandemic broke out in Wuhan, China. Mr. Johnson had badly fumbled on COVID-19 in the early months of the virus’s spreading in the U.K., with himself contracted to it and thrown into an ICU. Nonetheless, the pandemic caused little political pressure on him since the next election was going to be almost five years away. Current U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell presents even a starker contrast to Mr. Suga. Upon the death of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg last September, Mr. McConnell ruthlessly recommended a name to fill the void in the Supreme Court’s bench, six weeks before the election that President Trump was expected to lose. Thus another Republican-nominated judge Amy Coney Barrett went into the Supreme Court after a hasty Senate confirmation process. On March 16, 2016, President Barack Obama nominated judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat left by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Hours after Justice Scalia’s death was announced, Senator McConnell said he would consider any appointment by the sitting president to be null and void. He said the next Supreme Court should be chosen by the next president, to be elected eight months later. In 2016 and 2020, Mr. McConnell acted on two stunningly contradicting logics on appointing a Supreme Court Justice. It was an utterly shameless conduct, but Mr. McConnell and the GOP got what they wanted. Whether it was a good thing for America or not was another matter. Mr. Suga lacks such shamelessness. He is a policy guru with a poor communication skill who is too honest and sincere to survive the wilderness of emergency he was thrown into. To his credit, he pressed the country to an aggressive CO2 emissions reduction goal and executed a meaningful and politically unpopular reform on healthcare, by charging higher rates on the elderly people, in addition to getting vaccination on track.
About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.