TOKYO, Japan — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced plans to resign after failing to control the country’s coronavirus surge, with two former foreign ministers seen as leading the pack to take over, weeks before a general election.
In a surprise announcement, Suga told reporters Friday he couldn’t campaign for re-election as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party this month while battling the virus, ending his premiership almost exactly a year after it started. Whoever becomes the next LDP leader is virtually assured of becoming prime minister due to the party’s dominance in parliament.
“Since I became prime minister a year ago, dealing with coronavirus has been at the center of my efforts,” Suga, 72, said in a brief statement without taking questions. “Dealing with the virus while campaigning for the election would take a huge amount of energy. I realized I couldn’t do both and I should choose one.”
Suga’s resignation amplified speculation about possible replacements. Vaccine czar Taro Kono — a 58-year-old former foreign minister — plans to seek the LDP presidency, broadcaster TBS and other media reported. Kono told reporters he would consult with colleagues before making a decision to run.
Kono and Kishida have first-hand experience in negotiating with the U.S., Japan’s sole military ally, and China, the country’s biggest trading partner. Suga entered the premiership as a diplomatic novice, and as premier, offered support for President Joe Biden as he tried to line up allies for a united front to the security threats posed by China.
Public opinion polls have also shown support for Shigeru Ishiba, 64, a former defense minister. Ex-Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi has also said she wants to run and be the first woman to serve as prime minister.
If the LDP holds to pattern, potential candidates will likely spend the next few days talking to bosses of powerful factions within the party, who have great sway in the formation of a government.
Suga’s approval ratings plummeted over his handling of Japan’s worst-yet wave of virus cases, which coincided with the Tokyo Olympics. In recent weeks, he had seen a series of alarming setbacks, including a loss by one of his allies last month in an election for mayor of Yokohama, the city where he began his political career.