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TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a surprise move on Friday he would step down, setting the stage for a new premier after a one-year tenure marred by an unpopular COVID-19 response and sinking public support.
Mr. Suga, who took over after Shinzo Abe resigned last September citing ill health, has seen his approval ratings drop below 30 percent as the nation struggles with its worst wave of COVID-19 infections ahead of a general election this year.
Mr. Suga did not capitalize on his last major achievement—hosting the Olympics, which were postponed months before he took office as coronavirus cases surged.
His decision not to seek reelection as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president this month means the party will choose a new leader, who will become prime minister.
There is no clear frontrunner, but the popular minister in charge of Japan’s vaccination rollout, Taro Kono, intends to run, broadcaster TBS said on Friday without citing sources. Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida has already thrown his hat in the ring.
Before Mr. Abe’s record eight-year tenure, Japan had gone through six prime ministers in as many years, including Mr. Abe’s own troubled first one-year term.
“I want to focus on coronavirus response, so I told the LDP executive meeting that I’ve decided not to run in the party leadership race,” Mr. Suga told reporters. “I judged that I cannot juggle both and I should concentrate on either of them.”
He said he would hold a news conference as early as next week.
Mr. Suga’s abrupt resignation ended a rollercoaster week in which he pulled out all the stops to save his job, including suggestions he would sack his long-term party ally, as well as plans to dissolve parliament and reshuffle party executive and his cabinet.
He is expected to stay on until his successor is chosen in the party election slated for September 29. The winner, assured of being premier due to the LDP’s majority in the lower house of parliament, must call the general election by November 28.
Mr. Suga’s departure will raise questions about the timing of an in-person summit of the Quad grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia seen as a means to counter China that Washington has been looking to host this fall.
Mr. Suga’s image as a shrewd political operator capable of pushing through reforms and taking on the stodgy bureaucracy propelled his support to 74 percent when he took office.
He initially won applause for populist promises such as lower mobile phone rates and insurance for fertility treatments. But removing scholars critical of the government from an advisory panel and compromising with a junior coalition partner on policy for healthcare costs for the elderly drew criticism.
His delay in halting a domestic travel program—which experts say may have helped spread coronavirus around Japan—hit hard, while the public grew weary of states of emergency that hurt businesses.