Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has announced his intention to step down as leader of the country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as his government fails to effectively tackle the spread of COVID-19. In a short statement, Suga told reporters “The battle against the coronavirus takes a vast amount of energy and I don’t feel it is possible to carry on with that and fight the upcoming election for the party leadership.“ This leaves the LDP set to hold a leadership election ahead of the general election scheduled for later this year.
The spread of Coronavirus in Japan has worsened recently, increasing rapidly from 1,040 cases in a day on July 5 to 16,645 as of September 3. However, even before this recent spike, the government were under heat for their poor response and policy U-turns.
One such U-turn was a request by the government that alcohol suppliers do not work with businesses that ignored the earlier government request that barred drinking establishments from serving alcohol. While the no-alcohol policy did help to reduce the numbers of patrons packed together after work, the request to suppliers proved incredibly unpopular with the industry, leading Prime Minister Suga to apologise and rescind his request. Additionally, for drinking establishments staying open but not serving alcohol, a decrease in patrons could serve to seriously impact their financial stability, with many small businesses shutting down entirely with a lack of government support.
Another U-turn under Suga’s Prime Ministership was over the ‘Go to Travel’ scheme, subsidising domestic travel, started under previous Prime Minister Abe to resuscitate Japan’s economy. In November last year, as COVID cases were rising again, the subcommittee on Novel Coronavirus Disease Control insisted that the government end the program. Suga refused, arguing to prioritise the economy, but following growing disapproval eventually ended the scheme on December 28.
Prime Minister Suga’s popularity has continued to fall since then, with more recent polling by Asahi Shimbun finding their administration holds only 28% support, with only 26% of LDP voters wanting Suga to continue as party president after this term. Discontent with the ruling party was demonstrated most recently in the Yokohama mayoral election, held on August 22. The LDP-backed candidate came second, with 180,445 fewer votes than Takeharu Yamanaka, supported by the Japanese Communist Party, Constitutional Democrats and Social Democrats. One of Yamanaka’s main campaign arguments was criticism of the LDP’s Coronavirus mishandling.
With Suga’s resignation and the growing discontent by voters, it is set to be an interesting general election ahead. Major opposition parties – the Communists, Constitutional Democrats, Social Democrats and Democratic Party for the People – are set to contest 200 districts this time around, as opposed to only 61 in 2017. The opposition is also better coordinated, with the Communists open for a coalition with the Constitutional Democrats. The Constitutional Democrat leader, Yukio Edano, has however ruled out a formal coalition for policy-by-policy cooperation instead. Speaking on the radio, Edano explained “Such a coalition would collapse soon, although the JCP currently says it will put aside its positions on the Imperial Household system, the Self-Defense Forces and the Japan-U.S. security treaty.”
The Liberal Democrats’ handling of COVID-19 echoes the failures of capitalist governments around the world, including the UK. The ‘Go to Travel’ scheme, in particular, demonstrates a similar lack of sense to the UK Conservatives’ ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme. Both were intended to revitalise the economy through cutting the cost for consumers, travel in Japan’s case, dining in the UK. Indeed, both also encouraged people to go out when governments had not effectively contained the pandemic, helping to increase the spread of Coronavirus, leading to new states of emergency or lockdowns which only go on to hurt the people the schemes were meant to help. These governments chose to put profits before people, and in doing so helped increase the spread of COVID-19 and the greater preventable deaths that come with it.
Philip English, is a member of the YCL’s Manchester Branch