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Politics

Suga's approval rating plunges toward point of no return

Embattled leader scrapes new lows in July polls amid virus setbacks

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks with Naohisa Takato, who won the gold medal for men's 60 kg judo, on July 25.

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's approval rating reached record depths across the board in July polls, entering into territory that for most has foreshadowed an end to their time in office.

Approval of Suga's cabinet sank 9 percentage points from June to 34% in a weekend Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll -- the worst rating for a Japanese leader in nine years.

An especially big hit came from a resurgence in daily coronavirus infections that triggered a fourth state of emergency in the capital region ahead of the Olympics. Japan's vaccine rollout has also stalled, with many workplaces and municipalities halting new reservations.

Suga received his lowest-ever approval numbers in Asahi Shimbun, NHK and Kyodo News polls this month, while The Yomiuri Shimbun showed him staying flat from the record low of June.

An approval rating under 35% for Liberal Democratic Party-led cabinets has historically signaled further trouble ahead, with the prime minister stepping down within a year in most cases.

Yasuo Fukuda's cabinet sank to 31% in March 2008. It temporarily rose to 38% after a cabinet reshuffle that August, only to swiftly drop back down. He resigned in September.

The LDP then lost the general election and control of the government under Taro Aso, whose approval rating fell to 31% in November 2008 and never recovered above 35%.

Yoshiro Mori, Ryutaro Hashimoto and Shinzo Abe during his first stint as prime minister all also failed to regain momentum.

The lone exception was Keizo Obuchi, whose cabinet's approval fell as far as 25% in August 1998, shortly after he took office. It eventually climbed to 46% with the support of the Hashimoto faction, then the largest force within the LDP.

In contrast, Abe's cabinet dipped under the 40% mark three times in Nikkei polls during his more than seven-year second run as prime minister, including its record low of 38%. But it rebounded the following month every time. Junichiro Koizumi, another long-serving prime minister, never saw his cabinet slip under 40%.

Some members of Suga's ruling LDP do not want to rock the boat now with a general election coming up this fall and Japan struggling to contain the coronavirus. The LDP as a whole was 29 points ahead of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party in the latest Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll.

The key to Suga's future may lie with the so-called Aoki formula, named after Mikio Aoki, a former chair for the general assembly of LDP upper house lawmakers. Aoki theorized that a government loses its grip on power once the approval rating of the cabinet and the LDP add up to less than 50. Suga's cabinet and the party together amounted to 72 as of July.

Still, Suga's lack of popularity hangs heavily over the LDP as it gears up for the election. The difference between cabinet approval and LDP approval is considered an indicator of the party's ability to sway independent voters. This "premium" was consistently around 10 to 20 during Abe's second stint. Suga's now languishes at minus 4.

August opinion polls will come as the LDP weighs when to hold the general election and its own leadership race. The party could face turmoil if the coronavirus and vaccine setbacks further hurt Suga's approval rating.

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