06 Sep 2021 15:25 IST

Japan adds PM’s scalp to Olympic invoice

Yoshihide Suga is stepping down and his exit may put economic reform momentum at risk.

The Tokyo Olympics may have set another world record — in political body count. Scandals and gaffes have already forced multiple officials to resign over sexist comments, fat-shaming and Holocaust jokes. Now the Games can lay at least some claim to what may be their biggest scalp so far: Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose popularity tanked in part due to his insistence on holding the Games in the face of near-universal popular opposition.

Suga, whose support has fallen below 30 per cent according to polls, on Friday said he will not stand in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party leadership election scheduled for later this month. Equities markets rallied slightly on the news, probably because his image had become so toxic. The Games’ role in Suga’s demise after a mere year in power is a bad look for the International Olympics Committee, which is grappling with rising scepticism about the sporting event’s economic utility.

Turbulent times

To be sure, the IOC is not to blame for the economic damage the pandemic inflicted on Japan, nor can the Olympics be blamed for Suga’s fumbled rollout of vaccines and premature promotion of domestic tourism.

But because his administration failed to contain Covid-19 or efficiently vaccinate the population, the events had to be held under draconian conditions to prevent contagion — and many athletes who arrived tested positive. That erased any anticipated boost to the local economy from an event whose budget was a record $15.4 billion. Indeed expensive extra prophylactic measures may have distracted officials and complicated efforts to revive an economy that only grew an annualised 1.3 per cent in the second quarter, compared to 6.5 per cent in the United States.

Some reformers hoped Suga, a consummate technocrat, would be a tougher driver than even his charismatic predecessor Shinzo Abe of structural reforms like digitising government bureaucracies and banks, easing immigration flows and improving corporate governance. But Suga had no time to groom a successor, so an intra-party squabble is already underway. Whoever wins will inherit a virus contagion rate at 83 per cent of its all-time peak, deaths resurging, and consumer prices deflating. Japan may yet miss Suga, but he might not regret passing this baton.