Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Friday he will not seek reelection as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, effectively ceding his premiership and leaving the LDP leadership race wide open weeks before a general election.
The abrupt decision came after a rollercoaster week in which Suga had reportedly tried everything to salvage a historically unpopular administration, including dissolving parliament and reshuffling party executives as well as his cabinet.
The reason for his sudden departure was that Suga faced resistance in his attempt to reshuffle the ruling party's executives, Kyodo News said, citing an unidentified source close to Suga.
"I had planned to run, but working on COVID-19 countermeasures and election activities require a tremendous amount of energy, so I decided that I could not work on both and should choose one of them," Suga told reporters in Tokyo on Friday.
"My mission as the prime minister is to protect the life and livelihood of people, so I'd like to concentrate on this."
Japanese media reported earlier this week Suga had been planning to replace LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, the party's No 2 leader, in the reshuffle.
After the announcement, Nikai told reporters the LDP leadership race would be held as scheduled on Sept 29, leaving the ruling party a short period of time to find a new leader before a general election, which must be held by the end of November.
"Honestly, I'm surprised. It's truly regrettable. He (Suga) did his best, but after careful consideration he made this decision,"Nikai said, adding that the prime minister had yet to name a successor, indicating that the race could be wide open.
So far, Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, is a declared candidate and Vaccination Minister Taro Kono, who recently served as foreign and defense minister, expressed his intention to run on Friday. Sanae Takaichi, a former communications minister and one of the few female members of Abe's cabinet, has also expressed an interest in running.
Liu Qingbin, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Sciences at Yokohama National University, said once the LDP elects a new leader, that person will be named prime minister by the nation's parliament.
"The ruling coalition is then likely to remain in power, but it will lose some seats in the upcoming general election," Liu said.
Suga became Japan's prime minister after Shinzo Abe, the country's longest-serving leader, resigned last August citing health issues.
As a long-term aide to Abe, Suga's image as a political operator capable of pushing through reforms earned him a support rate as high as 70 percent when he took office.
However, corruption scandals, the sluggish response to COVID-19 and public opposition to holding the Olympics took their toll, bringing Suga's approval rate to a record low of 29 percent last month.