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Coronavirus

Honeymoon over as Suga faces make-or-break moment on virus

Japanese leader's approval rating slumps 32 points in three months

The public is turning up the heat on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for what it sees as his poor response to the pandemic.

TOKYO -- A fresh ban on foreign visitors announced less than a week before New Year's Day was a telling sign of the high pressure Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces as he grapples with a deeply unhappy public that has sent his approval ratings tanking.

"We implemented the entry restrictions in order to get ahead of the situation," Suga told reporters Monday, explaining the ban on entry from all countries that took effect the same day.

The government would in normal times start winding down for the year once the cabinet approved a draft of the next fiscal year's budget. But with the country facing surging coronavirus infections, Suga does not have such a luxury this year. After more than 100 days in office, Suga realizes that the public wants to see him deliver results quickly.

The prime minister faces a packed schedule in 2021, with a series of high-profile events from the Tokyo Olympics to a leadership election for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The success or failure of the government's coronavirus response will determine not just the fate of Suga's government, but also the future of Japan itself.

A weekend Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll showed his cabinet's approval rating down 16 points from November to 42%, a plunge attributed to his poor handling of the virus response. Public support tanked 32 points from 74% in September, the biggest fall in a three month period since 2008 when then-Prime Minister Taro Aso saw his approval ratings plunge that much.

Over the past three months, Suga pushed for the creation of a new digital agency and lower mobile rates while trying to bring coronavirus infections under control. 

Suga announced on Dec. 14 the suspension of the "Go To Travel" campaign designed to boost domestic tourism, only to come under fire for attending a steak dinner with other politicians and celebrities that night.

"I sincerely regret giving the wrong impression to the Japanese public," Suga later said. Japan has confirmed cases of a new coronavirus strain thought to be up to 70% more infectious. The spread could accelerate rapidly without effective restrictions, especially as many people take time off for the New Year's season.

But Suga's real test will come in January, with the Go To Travel suspension ending on the 11th and the entry ban expiring on the 31st. The government may have to extend them, depending on patient numbers early in the year.

An extension is not a desirable option for Suga, who has pledged to curb the virus while also protecting the economy. But he could face heavy criticism and risk an even greater economic blow should cases spike from restarting activities too early.

Suga will also need to act quickly in the Diet session that begins Jan. 18. The government and the LDP want to update coronavirus legislation by late January, shortly after passing a third supplementary budget for the fiscal year, so that they can help restaurants that reduce hours as told and penalize ones that refuse.

Coordination across party lines will be key to getting this through quickly. But the opposition plans to spend much of the Diet session digging into the cherry-blossom scandal involving the office of preceding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as well as a bribery scandal of former Agriculture Minister Takamori Yoshikawa. A delay in passing the legislation could keep local governments from taking effective measures against surging infections.

COVID-19 vaccines are another key element of the Suga agenda. The Japanese government plans to approve Pfizer's as early as February and start inoculating health care professionals. Properly ensuring vaccine safety and securing an adequate supply will be critical to ending the outbreak.

Coronavirus vaccines will need to be administered on an unprecedented scale in a short period of time -- a massive undertaking that will need expanded cold-storage and transportation capabilities, as well as venues and other preparations. Vaccines might not work as well as hoped, or not enough people might receive them.

Suga aims to get COVID-19 under control in order to hold a successful Tokyo Olympics this summer, then to leverage that momentum in the LDP leadership election that September and a lower house election sometime by October.

An inadequate virus response in early 2021 could derail these plans. A surge in cases would impact both the economy and the Olympics, possibly hurting his chances of reelection. He may also have a harder time setting the timing of the lower house election.

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