AURELIA GEORGE MULGAN. COVID-19 highlights Abe’s leadership failings (EAF 5.5.20)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership capacity is being called into question in relation to how he is dealing with Japan’s COVID-19 crisis.

He has appeared uncharacteristically diffident while veering between being over-hasty and too slow in his policy decisions. Abe’s typically strong and confident leadership seems to be missing in action.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe removes a protective face mask prior speaking during a news conference where he announces an extension of the nation's state of emergency amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo, Japan, 4 May, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/ Eugene Hoshiko/Pool).

In contrast, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has demonstrated decisive leadership in dealing with the virus, with rumours of a power struggle between the Prime Minister’s Office (Kantei) and the Governor, and a malfunctioning Kantei led by a Prime Minister who cannot grasp the public’s sense of crisis. Explicit comparisons have been made between Koike’s tough stance in dealing with the crisis in Tokyo and what critics call Abe’s timid and sluggish response.

A poll in mid-April showed 64 per cent disapproved of Abe’s performance in dealing with the virus outbreak. Another put the proportion of those who thought Abe had failed to show leadership at 57 per cent. Criticism was directed at some of Abe’s key policy decisions, such as his sudden, unilateral and ineffective decision to close schools until the end of March and his delay in declaring a state of emergency.

Abe’s hasty proposal to give 300,000 yen (US$2800) to needy households was criticised as ‘too limited and complicated’ and retracted. The provision of two cloth face masks to all households was derided as ‘Abenomask’, ‘too late’ and ‘stupid’, with many of the masks subsequently found to be ‘defective’. These policy stumbles followed earlier criticisms of Abe being ‘invisible’ for an entire month after the first case of COVID-19 in Japan.

Although Abe partially redeemed himself with a cash handout of 100,000 yen (US$935) to all citizens, his COVID-19 performance has created political issues for him. His grip on power is now more tenuous, his political standing within his own party is weaker and his command of government policy direction is less evident than they have ever been during his prime ministership. At times his slowness and indecision seems due to his reluctance to prioritise COVID-19 over other policy priorities — first the Olympics and now business and the economy.

Japanese scholar, Jiro Yamaguchi, argues that until mid-March both Abe and Koike were prioritising holding the Olympic Games on schedule and showing Japan off to the world. Even after the Olympics were postponed on 24 March, Abe remained conflicted between sustaining economic activity and preventing the spread of the virus. The policy drift was compounded by the concentration of power in the Kantei under Abe’s prime ministership.

Although able to seek input on COVID-19 from a panel of medical and public health experts, the government’s headquarters set up to deal with the virus is only composed of cabinet members, all of whom are career politicians with political rather than public health-related priorities.

Abe’s political standing in the wider electorate has not been helped by the continuing political fallout from the Moritomo Gakuen scandal resulting in the suicide of one of the key players in the Finance Ministry earlier this year. Even former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi called for Abe’s resignation given his clear involvement in the affair.

Abe’s political survival has continuously depended on his ability to win elections, which has shored up his standing within his own party. But if the polls show a continuing decline in his personal popularity and that of his government, this will further weaken his prime ministership.

All governments will struggle with the financial fall out from their COVID-19 countermeasures for decades to come. But Japan’s fiscal position is particularly perilous. Its total national and local debt already exceeds 1100 trillion yen (US$12.2 trillion), or 230 per cent of GDP. Japan has the worst debt-to-GDP ratio out of 188 countries.

The 100,000 yen per citizen payment will cost over 12 trillion yen (US$112 billion) — more than 10 per cent of Japan’s draftnational budget for fiscal year 2020 and almost half of the new 25.6 trillion yen (US$240 billion) supplementary budget that will fund it.

A post-COVID-19 growth strategy for rebuilding the Japanese economy could require a substantial rethink of Abenomics. ‘De-Abenomics’ is now being touted as a necessary to mitigate the risks of a post-COVID-19 fiscal and currency collapse. The Japanese government states that the economy is ‘getting worse rapidly in an extremely severe situation’, the first time in 11 years that the government has used the word ‘worse’ in its assessment of the economy.

COVID-19 will almost inevitably spoil the legacy that Abe has long intended to leave — a strong, revived economy amid tourism boosted by the Olympics, and a revised constitution giving legitimacy to the armed forces. Other key policy goals — such as the restoration of Japan’s sovereignty over the Habomai and Shikotan Islands in the Northern Territories and the resolution of the abductee issue with North Korea — are similarly disappearing over the horizon.

Abe’s favourite political technique to shore up his prime ministership and the leadership of his ruling party — dissolving the lower house for a snap election — cannot even be used. It is too logistically difficult to hold an election during a pandemic.

COVID-19 has stolen Abe’s long-held policy agenda and his legacy. Abe’s position is at serious risk as some commentators are already discussing the post-Abe era and the political form that it should take.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

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Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Canberra.

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