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Japan’s leader Yoshihide Suga to step down after just one year in office

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 17. (Pool/Reuters)

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Friday that he would step down later this month after only a year in the job, a casualty of plummeting approval ratings caused by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Suga, who took the top job after predecessor Shinzo Abe resigned because of ill health, said he would not contest the ruling party's leadership race in a few weeks, ahead of a general election to be held by November.

His decision ushers in a period of political uncertainty in Japan at a time when the Biden administration is seeking to restore alliances that were strained during the Trump-era “America First” approach. With neighboring South Korea also set to hold a presidential election next spring, the shifting domestic dynamics in two crucial U.S. allies could affect U.S. policy on issues such as North Korea’s nuclear threat and strategic competition with China.

On Friday, the 72-year-old told senior colleagues during a party meeting that he intends to focus on the coronavirus crisis rather than recontest the leadership.

Suga has faced intensifying criticism over the Japanese response to the pandemic, with record positive cases, new variants and a vaccination program that was slow to get started. In the midst of the crisis, the decision to go ahead with hosting the delayed Tokyo Olympics fueled more resentment among some voters.

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His abrupt announcement underscores a remarkable turn of events since Suga was appointed by party leaders last year in a landslide vote with high hopes that the longtime behind-the-scenes fixer of the Abe administration would lead the country out of the health crisis and economic decline.

Instead, what ensued was a series of missteps from Suga in managing the pandemic. His approval ratings, which began declining earlier this year, sank to below 30 percent by the end of August — reaching an apparent point of no return as positive cases hit records and overwhelmed the health-care system.

The prime minister’s exit indicates that he had lost the confidence of senior party figures, said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Washington-based Center for American Progress and a former Japanese legislative staffer.

“The problem really is that the party has decided there’s an election coming: He’s a liability. We know he’s a liability,” Harris said. “And they wanted a last shot at improving their chances of performing well in the election — at least stop the bleeding and reverse the party’s course.”

Younger members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party complained that the unpopular leader was creating a political headache and that “they cannot fight under Suga” in their own election campaigns, according to local media reports.

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In a brief statement on Friday afternoon, Suga said he decided to go after he weighed the toll of running a campaign while managing the pandemic response.

“Both require a lot of energy,” he said. “So I felt I should focus on measures to prevent the rapid spread of covid-19.”

The party’s leadership accepted the announcement, Toshihiro Nikai, its secretary general, said in a news conference.

“To be honest I am surprised, but I think he made the decision after thorough consideration. We believe that it is not appropriate for us to question him about it,” Nikai said.

Suga’s term finishes at the end of the month, and he had said previously that he would run in the party’s leadership election set for Sept. 29. He had been expected to face at least one challenger. Suga had served as chief cabinet secretary and the main spokesman in the Abe administration since 2012.

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Tokyo and surrounding prefectures have been placed under a state of emergency for most of this year, but the measures are largely unenforced and have been falling on deaf ears among a pandemic-weary public.

After a slow launch, Japan’s vaccination program is now underway. Nearly half of the population has received both shots of the coronavirus vaccine, and nearly all of the elderly population has been fully immunized.

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

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