Japan PM Suga’s ratings hit record lows as party leader race looms

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologised on Wednesday after lawmakers from his ruling coalition visited night clubs despite his government’s call for people to avoid unnecessary outings to curb the spread of COVID-19. FILE PHOTO: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a meeting of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infection control headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, Japan January 22, 2021. Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool via REUTERS The news is another headache for Suga whose approval rating has tumbled due to dissatisfaction with his handling of the pandemic, which critics have called too slow and inconsistent. “I’m terribly sorry that this happened when we are asking people not to eat out after 8 p.m. and to avoid non-essential, non-urgent outings,” Suga told parliament. “Each lawmaker should behave to gain the public’s understanding.” ADVERTISEMENT Japan this month issued a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas to tame a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. The measure includes a request for restaurants and bars to close by 8 p.m. although there are currently no penalties for non-compliance. “My behaviour was careless at a time when we are asking people to be patient,” Jun Matsumoto, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters. Matsumoto was speaking following a Daily Shincho magazine report that he had visited two night clubs in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district after dining at an Italian restaurant last Monday. ADVERTISEMENT Kiyohiko Toyama, a lawmaker from the coalition’s junior partner Komeito, also apologised after tabloid Shukan Bunshun reported he had visited a high-end night club in Ginza until late last Friday. Twitter users voiced their frustration. “It is just a matter of time before public anger explodes. I don’t want a blanket cash-payout of 100,000 yen ($965), I want them to quit! ” wrote one user. “They are really stupid. Don’t they think about what they are doing and how the public sees them? If they don’t, they are unqualified to represent the public,” said another.

Public support for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hit record lows, polls for two major newspapers showed on Monday, turning up the heat on the unpopular premier less than a month before he faces a challenge as leader of the ruling party.

Suga failed to capitalise on delivering the Olympics for the nation stricken by COVID-19, as a fresh wave of infections has forced the government to declare a fourth state of emergency in Tokyo and most urban areas amid a sluggish vaccination rollout.

The Mainichi newspaper poll showed public support for Suga slid below 30% for the first time, to stand at a dismal 26%. The Nikkei daily put his ratings at 34%, in line with a record low hit in its survey last month.

One of the polls also showed that Suga’s possible rivals for the top job, such as Administrative Reform Minister Taro Kono, who is leading Japan’s vaccination push, and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, were more popular with the public.

The 72-year-old prime minister also faced rare criticism from writer Haruki Murakami, who said that if the premier was able to see the way out of the pandemic, “He must have very good eyesight for his age.”

In a radio appearance on Sunday, the author of the 1987 novel, ‘Norwegian Wood’, said, “I’m the same age as Suga, and I don’t see a way out.

“That man has ears that don’t hear much, but his eyes are exceptionally strong. Or perhaps he just sees what he wants to see.”

The comments were among the most trending topics on Japanese Twitter. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato did not comment on the statements at his regular morning news conference.

Both Kono and Ishiba, who have yet to declare if they will run in the Sept. 29 contest, were backed by 16% of respondents when asked by the Nikkei who would be the best as the new leader of Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Suga, who has said he would fight to stay in his post, came in fourth at 11%, two points behind the low-key former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 64, who declared his candidacy in a policy speech on Thursday.

The winner is virtually assured of being prime minister because of the LDP’s majority in parliament’s lower house.

Popularity ratings are being closely watched because the new chief must lead the party to a general election by Nov. 28, but which is expected earlier.

Unlike last year, grassroots LDP members will vote along with its members of parliament, which could make the outcome harder to predict. And novice MPs, fearful of losing their seats, may be wary of following their elders’ orders.

The LDP-led coalition is not expected to lose its majority in the powerful lower house, but forecasts suggest that Suga’s party could lose the majority it holds on its own, an outcome that would weaken whoever is leading the LDP.

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