Japan's new prime minister Yoshihide Suga is suffering a slide in opinion polls after refusing to cancel a domestic tourism campaign and breaking Covid-19 rules to eat a steak dinner with celebrities.
With Japan still getting to know its new leader after he took over in September, the missteps have undermined a political persona built around Suga's humble provincial origins and his reputation for competence.
His fall to a negative approval rating in one recent poll, with 38 per cent supporting his administration and 40 per cent opposed, will make it harder for Suga to call an early general election next year or push through a significant legislative programme.
But political observers said Suga’s lapses also raised broader doubts about the longevity of his administration and whether he had the communication skills needed for the top job.
"It's the double standard," said Masatoshi Honda, a political analyst and academic. "He's asking people not to go out with more than five people, while he went to a steak house with eight. He's a regular person but he went for a very expensive meal.
“At the beginning there were very high expectations, but after three months people are thinking: who is this guy and what is he doing?”
The “Go To” domestic tourism campaign presented Suga with a similar dilemma to other world leaders, forced to choose between regional companies desperate for business and the need to control the virus.
But his handling of the campaign – which Suga eventually suspended over the new year holiday as Covid-19 case numbers hit record highs – has exposed broader problems with communication.
"Suga-san hasn't sent a clear message to the public," said Atsuo Ito, a former staffer for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Previously known as a backroom political operator, Suga is a dour public speaker, has little social media presence and has gone months between press conferences.
"People are disappointed that he isn't acting in a more leader-like way," said Tomoaki Iwai, an expert on Japanese politics at Nihon University.
“A leader needs to visit the front line, encourage medical workers, hold press conferences – he isn’t doing anything like that. I think the public are disappointed.”
Iwai said there may be broader problems in the prime minister's office. Suga was one of several powerful lieutenants to Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, but it is not clear if he has a similar ability to delegate.
Difficult political choice
The slide in Suga's approval rating leaves the prime minister with a difficult political choice for 2021. There are Tokyo assembly elections in the summer, his term as party leader expires in September and he must call a general election by October at the latest.
Many analysts previously thought Suga would try to score a few quick victories and then go for an election in January, or by spring at the latest. But the resurgence of Covid-19 and his own political weakness means he may have to wait until after the delayed Tokyo Olympics – assuming they are held at all.
Suga is not a member of any of the LDP’s factional groups, so he relies on support from Abe and other party leaders. But the lack of any viable alternative for the premiership means he is not in any immediate danger of a rebellion.
But if Suga’s political woes continue into the new year then the LDP may start to worry about its electoral prospects. “If the opinion poll rating stays low then I think the party won’t want him to call a dissolution before his term as party leader ends in September,” said Ito.
A general election would then just be weeks away. “One can’t say it’s a zero chance that they’ll seek to replace him,” Ito said.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020