Has this man lost Japan?

apan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bows in front of the national flag at a news conference after the government's decision to exted a state of emergency amid coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan May 28, 2021

When Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, stepped down last year citing health reasons, he passed the torch to his handpicked successor Yoshihide Suga.

Observers assumed that it would be mostly smooth sailing for the new PM, who had worked side-by-side with the popular Abe for decades.

But less than a year since taking office, Suga is now grappling with sky-high disapproval ratings and fighting for his political life. What's gone so wrong for Suga and what might this all mean for his political future?


COVID takes center stage. Few political leaders have emerged from the COVID crisis unscathed, but none, perhaps, have suffered as much as Suga, who is now recording a net approval rating of -35, way lower than the leaders of India and Brazil, where the pandemic has taken a far heavier toll.

Major Japanese cities are still under a "state of emergency" because new COVID strains have impeded efforts to contain the pandemic. Meanwhile, health systems in major cities like Osaka are still overwhelmed. That doesn't bode well for Suga, who was elected in September to replace Abe as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

For now, the Japanese population's ire is mostly directed at the government's bungled vaccine rollout, which many attribute to mismanagement by Suga and the LDP. To date, less than 10 percent of Japan's 126 million people have received at least one vaccine dose. That's particularly problematic in a country where 30 percent of the population are over 65, those most vulnerable to serious disease from COVID.

Critics say that Japan's government — feeling complacent with the country's relatively low caseload last year compared to other developed economies — was extremely slow to enter negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to secure vaccines. Moreover, the health ministry has also applied cumbersome red tape by requiring that all imports of vaccines undergo domestic clinical testing as well. While Japan's vaccine drive has picked up a little recently, it still lags way behind the US, UK, Canada, and the EU.

Political scandals. Abe's final months were spent trying to prevent a series of LDP scandals from tainting his political legacy. Suga, who one commentator described as an "Abe substitute," has indeed inherited that problem. A former LDP trade minister recently resigned from the Diet, Japan's legislature, over a gift and money scandal, while a former justice minister pleaded guilty to vote buying charges. Several other bribery and corruption scandals have also plagued LDP members, further undermining support for Suga's already-flailing government.

This contributed to the LDP losing three seats in by-elections in April, which all went to the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the main opposition. Importantly, the loss of an upper-house seat representing Hiroshima, an LDP stronghold, was a major blow for Suga and a sign of the depths of dissatisfaction from a scandal-weary populace.

Olympic politics. Meanwhile, Suga still insists on holding the Tokyo Olympic Games next month, despite the fact that 80 percent of Japanese oppose it, fearing the Games will become a super-spreader event for new variants. This has also contributed to the hemorrhaging of Suga's support in recent months.

But when it comes to navigating the Tokyo Olympics saga, Suga is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which, along with other stake holders, stands to lose billions in revenue from another postponement as well as lack of foreign spectators, is not making Suga's life any easier. Contractual and legal obligations with the IOC and sponsors also make this complicated terrain for the Japanese government.

Suga, for his part, probably hopes that pulling off a successful Olympics will help prop up his popularity ahead of a leadership vote for LDP's presidency in September, as well as general elections, which have to take place by October 22. Analysts say that he wants the general to come first (which LDP will likely win) so that he boosts his chances of winning a three-year term as head of his party.

Looking ahead. The LDP has only lost power twice since 1955. Given the state of the weak and divided opposition, it's unlikely that Japan will see a massive government shakeup this fall, though the ruling party could lose its two-thirds majority in the lower house, which is needed to make sweeping legislative change.

Suga will now have the mammoth task of convincing both his own party and the Japanese people that they should give him another go. Can he pull it off?

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This week, the US Senate passed the so-called Endless Frontier Act, a $250 billion investment in development of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the manufacture of semiconductors, and other tech-related sectors. The goal is to harness the combined power of America's public and private sectors to meet the tech challenges posed by China.

In its current form, this is the biggest diversion of public funds into the private sector to achieve strategic goals in many decades. The details of this package, and of the Senate vote, say a lot about US foreign-policy priorities and this bill's chances of becoming law.

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What do America's policies around the world mean for jobs, the economy, and the future of the country's future? This Tuesday, June 15. at 11 am ET, GZERO Media presents a a live discussion on trade, immigration, and how domestic issues like racism and deep partisan divides impact America's standing in the world. Our event, which is sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, is free and open to the public. Please register to attend.

Judy Woodruff, anchor of the PBS NewsHour, will moderate the conversation with:

  • Donna Edwards, Member of Congress (2008-2017)
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group and GZERO Media
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
  • Miriam Sapiro, Managing Director, Sard Verbinnen & Co. (SVC) and Former Acting and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative
  • Cecilia Muñoz, Senior Advisor, New America

Special appearance by Governor Thomas H. Kean, Chairman of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 | 11 am - 12:30 pm ET

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Listen: Is there a path to democracy for Europe's last dictatorship, Belarus? Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya discusses her hopes and fears for the country with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World Podcast. President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained a tight grip on power in Belarus for the last 26 years and rigged the results of his last election which led to widespread protest and unrest in his country, though few consequences globally. But will he now be held accountable after diverting a flight between two European capitals to arrest a dissident journalist? And just how close are he and Vladimir Putin?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Nigeria's federal government earlier this month blocked Twitter from the country's mobile networks, after the social media company deleted a controversial post from President Muhammadu Buhari's account. The move by Africa's largest and most populous economy comes as many governments around the world are putting increased pressure on social media companies, with serious implications for free speech.

So what actually happened in Nigeria, and how does it fit in with broader trends on censorship and social media regulation? Eurasia Group analysts Amaka Anku and Tochi Eni-Kalu explain.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

What's the significance of the US-China bill, competition bill that passed the Senate earlier this week?

Well, the bill is a major investment in American technology, research and development, semiconductor manufacturing, and it's designed to push back on the China Made in 2025 push that lawmakers have become increasingly worried about in recent years. The opinion in Washington has shifted from seeing China as a strategic competitor to a strategic rival. And you're seeing what's now likely to be one of the only bipartisan bills in Congress now pushing back on that. Significant money for semiconductors in this bill, even though some of it was set aside for automotive purposes. That money's not going to come online fast enough to really make a difference to the current global semiconductor shortage, but it will help build up US long-term spending capacity and manufacturing capacity in semiconductors.

Other aspects of the bill, banned the application TikTok from going on government devices out of security concerns, created new sanctions authorities around Xinjiang and Hong Kong for human rights abuses, and mandated a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, which is probably going to happen anyway once the Biden administration is able to align with its allies. Let the athletes play. Don't let any high level delegations go. This is probably the only bipartisan bill to happen this year, yet still, half of Senate Republicans voted against it because they were opposed to the kind of industrial policy they think this represents, but it does show the area where there's bipartisan agreement in a city that's very, very divided right now. China is the bad guy and Congress is moving in that direction.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

What do you expect from President Biden's first European trip since taking office?

Well, first, it will be sort of reconnecting with Europe, reconnecting with the European Union, with NATO, with the partners in the G7, and going really from the initial message, which was, "we are back," to a more concrete message, "here is what we could potentially do together." That is the expectations. And let's see how it turns out.

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Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

When President Biden and President Putin meet, will cybersecurity will be a key issue that they discuss?

Now, I'm sure that there will be many thorny issues on the table. But after American fingers pointed to Russia and hold it responsible for the SolarWinds hack, it's likely. Criminals in Russia were also not hindered when they held the Colonial Pipeline Company ransom through a ransomware attack. And really, when journalists and opposition leaders cannot speak a single critical word without being caught, how come cybercriminals can act with impunity in Russia? So the need for prevention and accountability really is significant. And I hope the President Biden can push and persuade Putin to change the confrontational and aggressive course that he is on.

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Watch "Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans" live on Tuesday, June 15 |  11 AM – 12:30 pm ET

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Watch "Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans" live on Tuesday, June 15 |  11 AM – 12:30 pm ET

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal