Honeymoon over as Suga faces make-or-break moment on virus
Nikkei -- Dec 29
A fresh ban on foreign visitors announced less than a week before New Year's Day was a telling sign of the high pressure Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces as he grapples with a deeply unhappy public that has sent his approval ratings tanking.

"We implemented the entry restrictions in order to get ahead of the situation," Suga told reporters Monday, explaining the ban on entry from all countries that took effect the same day.

The government would in normal times start winding down for the year once the cabinet approved a draft of the next fiscal year's budget. But with the country facing surging coronavirus infections, Suga does not have such a luxury this year. After more than 100 days in office, Suga realizes that the public wants to see him deliver results quickly.

The prime minister faces a packed schedule in 2021, with a series of high-profile events from the Tokyo Olympics to a leadership election for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The success or failure of the government's coronavirus response will determine not just the fate of Suga's government, but also the future of Japan itself.

A weekend Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll showed his cabinet's approval rating down 16 points from November to 42%, a plunge attributed to his poor handling of the virus response. Public support tanked 32 points from 74% in September, the biggest fall in a three month period since 2008 when then-Prime Minister Taro Aso saw his approval ratings plunge that much.

Over the past three months, Suga pushed for the creation of a new digital agency and lower mobile rates while trying to bring coronavirus infections under control.

Suga announced on Dec. 14 the suspension of the "Go To Travel" campaign designed to boost domestic tourism, only to come under fire for attending a steak dinner with other politicians and celebrities that night.

"I sincerely regret giving the wrong impression to the Japanese public," Suga later said. Japan has confirmed cases of a new coronavirus strain thought to be up to 70% more infectious. The spread could accelerate rapidly without effective restrictions, especially as many people take time off for the New Year's season.

But Suga's real test will come in January, with the Go To Travel suspension ending on the 11th and the entry ban expiring on the 31st. The government may have to extend them, depending on patient numbers early in the year.

An extension is not a desirable option for Suga, who has pledged to curb the virus while also protecting the economy. But he could face heavy criticism and risk an even greater economic blow should cases spike from restarting activities too early.

News source: Nikkei
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