Analysis – Japanese Prime Minister Suga’s partisan rebellion grows after losing local elections By Reuters

Written by Linda Sage and Yoshifumi Takemoto

TOKYO (Reuters) – Unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga looks increasingly vulnerable to a challenge from within his party for the country’s top job after his ally’s defeat in local elections on Sunday is seen as a referendum on Suga’s response to COVID-19.

If Suga loses, he will join a long list of Prime Ministers for short terms. He took office in September after Abe resigned, citing ill health and the end of a rare long tenure of nearly eight years.

Suga, whose term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends next month, has seen his support drop from highs of about 70% to below 30%, with a weekend poll by ANN News putting support at 25.8% as Japan battles a wave Explosive from COVID-19 infection.

On Monday, local media reported that former foreign minister Fumio Kishida is likely to run in the LDP leadership race.

The defeat of Hachiro Okonogi, the son of Suga’s political mentor and a former cabinet minister, in Sunday’s election for Yokohama mayor, is likely to amplify calls for Suga’s replacement ahead of a lower house election that must be held by November.

Japan’s opposition Constitutional Democratic Party candidate Takeharu Yamanaka, a former public health professor, has won an overwhelming majority in the Suga constituency near Tokyo.

“The LDP is under fire in the electoral district, so it is very difficult to fight under Suga,” said a junior LDP lawmaker from a conservative rural area, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Such opinions are expected to spread.

“Voices that say they cannot run in the general elections under Suga’s leadership will certainly rise,” said political analyst Atsu Ito. The chances of multiple candidates (in the LDP race) will increase.”

However, uncertainty remains. Suga told reporters on Monday that there was no change in his plan to run in the LDP elections. None of the party chiefs who supported Suga last year have publicly withdrawn their support.

“You shouldn’t change the captain of a ship in the midst of a storm,” one prominent LDP lawmaker said before the mayor’s vote.

Election track record

Scenarios include Suga losing the LDP race to a rival, withdrawing early, or winning the party vote and retaining his job if the LDP losses in the House election are limited.

Suga’s election record is not good. Abe led his coalition to victory in six national elections, but Suga-ha saw defeats in by-elections and a lackluster appearance in a local election in Tokyo.

The four-year term of the House of Representatives expires on October 21. Council elections should be held by November 28, but they are expected to take place soon.

Suga had hoped to contain the outbreak of the virus and call a general election after a successful Olympics. This scenario was turned on its head after the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, triggered the fourth state of emergency in Tokyo.

Besides Kishida, former Home Affairs Minister Sana Takaishi, an Abe schoolgirl, has said she wants to run, as well as Seiko Noda, another former cabinet minister. Both are seen as far-reaching goals, as is the case with former Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura.

Administrative Reform Minister Taro Kono, who is directing Japan’s delayed vaccination launch, and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba top the list of lawmakers favoring a vote for the next prime minister, followed by Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi.

Kishida, who was once seen as Abe’s heir, is at rock bottom. Abe himself has one-number support. Prime Ministers have occasionally escaped poor ratings, but Suga is at particular risk because his term as party chief is ending as a general election approaches.

Decisions made by party leaders, including Abe, his ally Finance Minister Taro Aso, and their rival, LDP General Secretary Toshihiro Nikai, are of great significance. But younger lawmakers may be more concerned about losing their seats than bowing to the party line.

Analyst Ito said these deputies are “very uncomfortable about their elections. It is unclear whether they would vote for Suga even if their faction leaders asked them to do so.”

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