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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga leaves after a news conference at his office in Tokyo, Japan, 9 September 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool).

Author: Rikki Kersten, ANU

In the time of COVID-19, competence in managing the pandemic is a vital criterion for reward or punishment at the polls for democratic leaders. This is politically tricky enough to manage on its own. Add hosting the Olympics during a pandemic and being a transitional leader, and you’re in the unique world of political pain that was the ultimate fate of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

When Suga failed to gain a popularity boost from the postponed Tokyo Olympics, it not only threw the electoral schedule into sharp relief for the ruling coalition but it also threw Suga under a bus. When his popularity sunk to the political death zone of an approval rating of 27 per cent Suga accepted that the compressed post-Olympic electoral schedule meant that he had to go. On 3 September Suga duly announced that he would not run for the leadership on 29 September, setting the stage for a new prime minister to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) into Japan’s general election.

How will things be different for Suga’s successor?

The selection of the new LDP leader is hostage to two counterveiling forces. One is the visceral desire on the part of the parliamentary party to ‘save the furniture’ in the pending general election (which is scheduled to be called no later than 21 October). The other is the rising pressure within the party to shift towards generational change. In selecting the next party president and future prime minister, the LDP must try to satisfy both if Japan is to avoid political instability, and a return of ‘revolving door’ prime ministers.

Whoever’s in the hotseat, the management of COVID-19 will be key. Whatever else, Suga’s successor must demonstrate bureaucratic competence in pandemic management in the eyes of a COVID-jaded electorate. This is especially important because …continue reading