Japan’s leader says he will step down after just a year in office

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday that he would not run in the governing party’s leadership election this month, indicating he would step down after just a year as the country’s leader.

Suga has struggled with low public approval ratings over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and for pressing ahead with holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer over the objections of health experts and much of the public.

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Speaking to reporters after a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party, Suga said he wanted to focus on combating the spread of the coronavirus in Japan, which is experiencing its worst outbreak of the pandemic.

“As I was planning to run for the presidency, when I thought about the coronavirus measures and also campaigning, I realized a great deal of energy would be needed, that I cannot have it both ways and that I must choose one or the other,” he said.

Japan is reporting record numbers of virus cases, averaging almost 20,000 a day. Tokyo, the capital, is in a state of emergency along with 20 of the country’s 47 prefectures.

In July, Suga’s party failed to win a majority in a local election in Tokyo that was seen as a key indicator of voter attitudes.

Although the Liberal Democrats are expected to prevail in a general election that must be held this fall, several party members had reportedly raised concerns that they could suffer heavy losses in the lower house of Parliament.

Suga, the son of a strawberry farmer from Japan’s northern prefecture of Akita, enjoyed support ratings as high as 70 percent early in his tenure.NICOLAS DATICHE / AFP – Getty Images

Since the Liberal Democrats hold a parliamentary majority, the winner of the party leadership election on Sept. 29 is likely to succeed Suga as prime minister. Candidates must announce their intention to run by Sept. 17.

The only two candidates who have officially done so are Fumio Kishida, the former foreign minister, and Sanae Takaichi, the former minister of internal affairs. With Suga out of the race, other candidates may emerge.

Suga took over in September 2020 from Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. The country has historically seen high turnover in the top job, with Abe becoming the sixth prime minister in five years when he took office in 2012.

Arata Yamamoto reported from Tokyo, and Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong.

The Associated Press contributed.

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