Japan Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Picture: REUTERS/ISSEI KATO
Japan Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Picture: REUTERS/ISSEI KATO

Tokyo — Japan’s tally of coronavirus infections is shooting up faster than ever, and support for Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is sinking to new lows.

While Japan’s total death toll remains close to the number the US sees in a day, the public fears that Japan may be sitting on a ticking time-bomb. Abe’s approval slid to a record low of 35.4% in a poll published by JNN on Monday. More than 60% of respondents said Abe should declare a second state of emergency to bring infections under control — something his ministers have rejected.

Abe has come under fire for failing to hold a press briefing since June, though his main spokesperson said he is in good health. After years of consolidating power, however, Abe may be starting to let go: speculation over an early election has all but ended, and it looks like he’s letting potential successors vie for attention before his term as party leader ends in September 2021.

Asked on Tuesday if he should address the media, Abe deferred to others in his cabinet.

“He no longer appears to be indispensable; the only one who can keep Japan safe,” said Tobias Harris, an analyst at advisory firm Teneo. “Instead, he has appeared indecisive, several steps behind events, and unable to communicate directly with the public.”

This has left the country in a political limbo. No-one in Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has stood out as a likely successor, while opposition parties are mired in single-digit support rates. Local leaders who have gained support for their Covid-19 management, such as Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, don’t have the political machine to win a national election.

Abe’s government has looked out of sync with public fears, seen by a push to encourage domestic travel with subsidies despite criticism it will spread the virus. Next week, Japan enters one of its busiest travel periods — the “Obon” holidays — and the national government hasn’t issued a blanket request for people to stay home even though some regional states are asking people not to visit.

In the latest of a series of flip-flops, Abe has ditched his ill-fitting trademark cloth mask for a larger face-covering. What became known as the Abe-mask, sent at great expense to all households, was derided for being too small.

After dwindling in late May, coronavirus cases have ballooned in the wake of what many saw as a hasty reopening of the economy, as the government sought to save struggling businesses. The seven-day average of daily new infections is now more than 1,000, almost twice a previous peak seen in April, while Tokyo alone confirmed 263 new cases on Wednesday.

Though Abe has bounced back from blows to his approval ratings since taking office in 2012, his average support has now been drifting down for about a year, hurt by a series of scandals.

“If he got the virus under control, he would have a chance of recovering,” said Harukata Takenaka, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “But, taking effective measures to control the virus is awkward for the cabinet, because of fears about damaging the economy.”

An autumn poll

Economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who heads the virus response, has said there’s no need for a clampdown on economic activity. While GDP fell just 2.2% in the first quarter of the year, data for the second quarter due in mid-August is expected to show a slump of more than 20%, the worst on record.

Abe doesn’t need to call an election for more than a year, but speculation had emerged about an autumn poll. That prospect looks unattractive for the ruling coalition if it risks losing seats thanks to an unpopular premier. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga has twice brushed aside talk of an early election in recent days, insisting that dealing with the pandemic is the top priority.

Suga told reporters on Wednesday that he didn’t see Abe’s recent avoidance of press conferences as a problem and declined to comment on when a new session of parliament would be opened. Abe is set to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombings, according to media reports.

The lack of clear explanation from the top is probably deliberate given that Abe’s term is coming to a close, according to Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation think-tank.

The prime minister’s absence leaves the limelight to potential successors such as Nishimura and health minister Katsunobu Kato. Polls show the public’s favourite for the job is former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, while Abe has mentioned former foreign minister Fumio Kishida as a future leader.

“If Abe was planning to stay on for another term, he would need to show more visible leadership,” Watanabe said. “But if that’s not the case, he can allow prospective successors to compete.”

Bloomberg

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