Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday expressed his intention to resign as mounting public criticism over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and growing doubts among ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers about his leadership have diminished his chances of winning a second term.
With Suga's decision not to run in the Sept. 29 LDP presidential election, some senior LDP lawmakers, such as former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, vaccination minister Taro Kono and former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, have announced their bids or indicated their intention to join the race. Campaigning will start on Sept. 17.
Suga's decision comes as LDP lawmakers have stepped up criticism against his tactical maneuvering to stay on the job, including a suggestion that he would sack Toshihiro Nikai, the party's secretary general who helped him secure the post last year, as well as half-baked plans to call a general election and reshuffle LDP executives and the Cabinet.
The LDP leader effectively becomes Japan's prime minister since the party controls the House of Representatives, the powerful lower chamber of parliament.
"I decided to focus on coronavirus measures," Suga told reporters.
The development came just under a year after Suga took office following his predecessor Shinzo Abe's abrupt departure for health reasons.
Suga said at an extraordinary meeting of LDP executives Friday that he will serve out his term as LDP president through Sept. 30.
Suga will be the seventh to join a list of Japanese prime ministers since the early 2000s who quit after a year or so in office. Even the first tenure of Abe, the country's longest-serving leader with a total of 3,188 days in power, lasted just a year between 2006 and 2007.
Following a slew of defeats by LDP lawmakers and his allies in elections -- including the Yokohama mayoral election last month -- which have underscored the public's discontent with the government, Suga has been increasingly under scrutiny for his ability to lead the party into a general election and secure a majority of seats.
The LDP contest, which will decide Suga's successor, comes ahead of a general election that must be held in the fall as the lower house members' term expires on Oct. 21.
The 225-issue Nikkei Stock Average ended up 584.60 points, or 2.05 percent, from Thursday at 29,128.11, ending at its highest level since June 16. The Topix index of all First Section issues on the Tokyo Stock Exchange finished 31.88 points, or 1.61 percent, higher at 2,015.45, ending at its highest level since April 18, 1991.
"The market reacted positively for the time being amid high expectations for new COVID-19 countermeasures and economic policies under a different government, although the next LDP leader has yet to be determined," said Masahiro Yamaguchi, head of investment research at SMBC Trust Bank.
The news raised hopes for new policies to fight the crisis as the current measures under the Suga government appear to face a deadlock, Yamaguchi said.
Suga had been planning to replace Nikai, the LDP's No. 2 member of five years, and other party executives on Monday. He also planned to change his Cabinet lineup ahead of the party contest, a move apparently aimed at giving a fresh face to the party and his government to boost his Cabinet's falling approval ratings.
But a source at the prime minister's office said Suga's plans to reshuffle the party's executives hit a snag.
Nikai said Suga has not named a successor, and the LDP leadership race will be held as scheduled.
Kishida, who has already thrown his hat into the ring, said his intention to run has remained "unchanged" after Suga's announcement, while Takaichi said she "will fight till the end" of the leadership race.
Kono, a former foreign minister and defense minister, is willing to run in the LDP presidential election and plans to announce his candidacy early next week, a source close to him said. He has been on the list of possible future prime ministers in media opinion polls.
Other possible contenders include Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who also ranks high among prime ministerial hopefuls, Seiko Noda, executive acting secretary general of the LDP, and Hakubun Shimomura, chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council.
Suga had earlier announced his bid for a second term, but he gave up on the plan amid falling support within the party as well as with the public.
Suga was forced to extend the COVID-19 state of emergency that has been in place in Tokyo since July 12 and expand it to cover 21 of Japan's 47 prefectures as hospitals came under increasing strain during the Tokyo Olympics.
Following reports of Suga's intent to resign, stocks reacted positively, with Tokyo's Topix stock index ending at a 30-year high and the Nikkei surging over 2 percent, reflecting hopes for a new government to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suga, who served as chief Cabinet secretary under Abe for more than seven years, won the party leadership race last year against Kishida and Ishiba, becoming prime minister on Sept. 16.
Suga pledged to continue with Abe's economic and diplomatic policies, eliminate sectionalism and create a "Cabinet that works for the people," with the approval rating for his Cabinet standing at over 60 percent at the time.
However, it fell gradually after a slew of wining and dining scandals involving Suga's son and a close aide. Then, in August, his rating plunged to its lowest level of 31.8 percent in a Kyodo News poll in the face of the public's rebuke against the government's coronavirus response.