TOKYO — Less than a year after becoming prime minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga said Friday that he would not seek reelection as the head of its governing party, raising the prospect of a return to the revolving-door leadership that once characterized the top office of the world’s third-largest economy.
Suga, 72, assumed the prime ministership after Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned in August 2020 because of ill health. But Japan’s struggles with the coronavirus left Suga deeply unpopular, and his decision Friday makes him a rare leader of a large, developed country to resign in large part because of the pandemic.
The son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from the country’s rural north, Suga had been a behind-the-scenes operator in the governing Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japanese politics for decades. A deeply uncharismatic leader who struggled to connect with the public, he often looked uncomfortable as a public-facing leader.
In the end — with coronavirus cases hitting record highs, hospitals turning away patients and a vaccination campaign still straining to catch up with other rich countries — he apparently decided he had no viable path to remaining prime minister.
The winner of a party leadership race that begins Sept. 17 will most likely be designated prime minister by Japan’s parliament and then lead the party into a general election that must be held by late next month.
Suga’s early departure threatens to push Japan back into the leadership instability that marked the period before Abe’s nearly eight consecutive years in power. During that time, the country churned through six prime ministers in six years, including an earlier stint by Abe himself.
With the same party almost assured to remain in power, Japan’s policies on the economy, trade, international relations and other matters are unlikely to change. But uncertain leadership raises doubts about Tokyo’s ability to carry out its promises.
At a hastily convened news conference Friday afternoon, Suga said he wanted to focus on managing the pandemic rather than running a reelection campaign. With the party leadership contest approaching, he said, “I realized that I need enormous energy.”
“I cannot do both,” he said. “I have to choose one.”
In the days before his surprise announcement, Suga appeared to be trying to salvage his leadership. When a rival, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, announced last month that he would stand for the party leadership, rumors circulated that Suga might dissolve parliament early and call a general election in a last-ditch effort to retain his position. He had also suggested that he would reshuffle his Cabinet and other leadership positions within the party.
The race to replace Suga as party leader culminates in a vote on Sept. 29 and so far appears relatively open.
Kishida was the only declared candidate this week, though a former communications minister, Sanae Takaichi — who was one of the few female members of Abe’s Cabinet — has expressed interest. A few hours after Suga made his announcement, Taro Kono, a more liberal-leaning iconoclast who has served as foreign and defense minister and has more recently led the vaccine rollout, said he was consulting with allies about whether to run.
The Liberal Democrats have held power in Japan for almost the entire postwar era, and the political opposition has been in disarray for the past decade, after being blamed for a mismanaged response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The Liberal Democrats, while an overwhelming favorite to retain power, may still be seeking a strategic advantage by installing a new prime minister in the weeks before the general election.
The opposition “will have a harder time running against someone who is maybe enjoying a honeymoon and looks new and fresh and promising change that makes people feel a little more optimistic,” said Tobias Harris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a specialist in Japanese politics.
While Japan has been plagued by revolving-door leadership in the past, complicating efforts to tackle entrenched economic and demographic problems, Suga’s increasingly desperate scramble to keep his job was without recent precedent, analysts said.
“I can’t quite recall this degree of confusion,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “I think he was really struggling and feeling isolated, and his desperate attempts to cling to power backfired one after another.”
In many respects, Suga’s quick rise and fall could be attributed to timing. When Abe resigned, the party bosses decided they did not want a bruising leadership contest and quickly aligned behind Suga, a power broker and chief spokesman for Abe who was perceived as malleable and willing to carry on his predecessor’s policies.
Although Kishida also ran in the leadership election last fall, the party anointed Suga in what was largely seen as a rubber-stamp vote.
But public frustrations with Suga grew as Japan, which had managed the pandemic quite well in 2020, took months to ramp up its vaccination program and left the population weary with continued economic restrictions. Concerns that the government was plowing ahead with the Olympics as cases rose in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures also damaged Suga’s credibility.
By early last month, Suga’s approval ratings, which were above 60% at the beginning of the year, had plunged below 30%.
With his difficulty connecting with the public, Suga shouldered the blame for the broader failings of the Japanese bureaucracy, which held up vaccinations with requirements for domestic clinical testing and limits on who could administer the vaccines.
“His communication with the public was not very effective,” said Sheila A. Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Suga also embodied a larger, deep-seated challenge facing Japan’s government, Smith said.
“When you have a crisis, you need an adaptable, break-all-the-rules, get-things-done kind of response, and that is a little harder for Japan,” she said.
Perhaps most critically, Suga, who once had the support of the party’s bosses in its factional governing system — including Abe, who still wields influence behind the scenes — appeared to have lost his backers.
The current term of the House of Representatives is scheduled to expire next month, which would oblige the party to call a general election by no later than Oct. 21. But the new leader could dissolve parliament before the term expires, which would allow a general election to be postponed until late November.
Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the pandemic, political analysts say it will be tough for any opposition party to unseat the Liberal Democrats.
“I am sure many frustrated people really wanted to vote for another party or representatives who may do better,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “But at this moment, there is no strong alternative to the LDP, and that is a failure of the Japanese political system.”