Japan virus outbreaks, scandals sap public support for Suga

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FILE - In this Dec. 25, 2020, file photo, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga adjusts a face mask after a press conference on the COVID-19 situation in Japan at the prime minister's office in Tokyo. Prime Minister Suga came to office on a surge of popularity, pledging to combat the coronavirus and fix the languishing economy. Now his support ratings have plunged amid flaring virus outbreaks and scandals within the ruling party, even as the economy appears to be recovering. (Nicolas Datiche/Pool Photo via AP, File)

TOKYO – Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga came to office on a wave of popularity, pledging to combat the coronavirus and fix Japan's languishing economy.

Three months after he took over from his former boss Shinzo Abe, a more charismatic leader from an influential political family, Suga seems to be struggling to find his feet. His support ratings have sunk amid flaring virus outbreaks and scandals within the ruling party, even as the economy appears to be recovering.

On Monday, the Nikkei financial newspaper said its latest survey found approval ratings for Suga’s government had sunk more than 30 points to 42% from 74% in late September. The 48% of those questioned who disapproved mainly cited a lack of leadership and poor handling of the pandemic.

One big source of trouble has been the government’s “GoTo Travel” campaign, which provides steep discounts for domestic travel.

The program was launched in the summer, before Suga took office. It was suspended as of Monday, but many Japanese believe it helped spread the virus and should have been halted sooner.

Experts, including COVID task force chief Shigeru Omi, said Suga’s insistence on continuing GoTo promotions until recently sent a muddled message at a time when the government is urging people to scale back activity.

So did his attendance at an expensive steak dinner for eight, including several celebrities and other political bigwigs, on Dec. 14 just hours after his decision to suspend “GoTo Travel." At the time, the government was urging people to avoid wining and dining in groups of more than five, and advising anyone over 65 to stay home if at all possible — Suga is 72.

With coronavirus cases surging — about 2,400 new cases were reported Monday — the government’s handling of the pandemic is being called into question. The dinner and other gatherings have drawn criticism from the public and even Suga's own coalition.