Date first published: 17/08/2021
Key sectors: all
Key risks: policy uncertainty
Ahead of the general election that must be held by the end of October, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has recorded its lowest approval rate between the months of June and August. No Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led government has survived with an approval rating below 35 per cent, and Suga’s 32 per cent does not bode well for his survival. Growing public dissatisfaction can be attributed to the government’s decision to continue with the Olympic Games despite record high COVID-19 infections. Suga’s record low approval rate could elicit a return of ‘revolving door’ leadership amid two key elections scheduled for September and October.
Why it matters
Suga’s sinking approval rate ahead of the key elections has two core implications. Firstly, a feeble electoral performance by LDP could mark a return to ‘revolving door’ leadership which has seen Japan led by six prime ministers between 2006 and 2012. Since the resignation of former prime minister Shinzo Abe in August 2020, Suga has appeared to lack fresh policy ideas, raising the prospect of a leadership challenge ahead of LDP’s presidential election in September.
Secondly, part of the historically fractured opposition was consolidated into the new Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) in September 2020. With 150 sitting lawmakers, the CDP has become the largest opposition party, posing a viable challenge to LDP’s dominance in Japanese politics. Since then, the LDP has lost three by-elections to CDP-backed candidates and also underperformed in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections. The upcoming general elections will likely focus on the government’s handling of the country’s COVID-19 crisis as the dominant issue. If the CDP manages to gain traction in the face of a weakening LDP, the election could change the country’s political landscape in the years to come.
While polling shows that most voters deem the Olympic games in Tokyo a success, this has not translated to support for Suga. Most voters disagree with Suga’s claim that the games did not lead to a rise in COVID-19 infections and have been frustrated by a series of haphazard policy decisions. Trust in the government has fallen due to mixed messaging over the decision to continue with the games while under a state of emergency. As Suga’s ratings plummeted, most voters cited a lack of leadership and poor management as reasons behind their disapproval.
While Suga could face a challenge in the LDP’s presidential elections in September, it is unlikely he will be replaced. There are no clear contenders for the party’s leadership and the LDP appears poised to stick with Suga as the instability that comes with replacing him could see the party worse off at the general elections.
Despite the relative weakness ahead of the election, the LDP has a near impregnable position and is unlikely to lose to a traditionally weak and fractured opposition. The CDP has yet to convince the electorate that they are not a rebrand of the Democratic Party of Japan that spectacularly imploded in 2012. Furthermore, there remain several internal rifts within the CDP that could derail the new coalition while lower turnout could pose a challenge for the CDP. Nonetheless, the CDP’s focus on the issue of COVID-19 could lead to few more seats in the Diet, shaping a more competitive political landscape in the years to come.