TOKYO - Support for Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga slid further below 30% in August in a survey by Jiji news agency, a blow for him as members of his party start to question if he should lead them into a general election that must be held by October.
The survey underscores how the Tokyo Olympics have failed to offset the disapproval over Suga's handling of the pandemic, with Japan battling a fifth wave of infections, in line with other polls that show his ratings are at record lows.
"The administration probably hoped to prop up ratings and wipe out public fears over the pandemic with the Olympics," said Nozomu Yamazaki, a professor at Japan's Komazawa University.
"But infections spiked during the Games, the medical system is on the verge of collapse and vaccines are still in short supply. It's not surprising approval ratings are low," he said.
Japan lags other advanced nations in vaccination rollouts, while a spike in Delta variant cases has overwhelmed an already stretched medical capacity, forcing the government to ask patients with milder symptoms to isolate at home.
Such handling of the pandemic has hurt ratings ahead of a general election that must be held by Oct. 21.
Suga's plan is to dissolve parliament and call a snap election after the Paralympic Games end in early September, lawmakers and government officials have said.
This could allow Suga to continue as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) when his current term as its head expires on Sept. 30, without holding a leadership race.
But the plan has been challenged by some LDP lawmakers who, worried about Suga's low ratings, are calling for a party leadership race to be held before the general election.
"We can't win the election with Mr. Suga at the helm," one junior LDP lawmaker told Reuters, a view echoed by another ruling party heavyweight. Both spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
SUGA'S POTENTIAL OPPONENTS
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former general affairs minister Sanae Takaichi and ruling party executive Seiko Noda have expressed an interest in running for the top LDP role.
Political experts say the ruling coalition may lose some seats in the election but stay in power regardless of who heads the party, helped by a fragmented and weak opposition.
But the uncertainty could hobble progress in containing the pandemic. Even if Suga survives, a weak election result could overshadow his growth strategy and deprive him of the mandate to push through reforms, analysts say.
The election will also heighten political calls for another big spending package to appease voters, even as other nations wean their economies off crisis-mode stimulus, they say.
"Another fat budget could be positive for Japanese stocks in the short run. But pork-barrel spending ... won't brighten Japan's long-term economic outlook," said Toru Suehiro, a senior economist at Daiwa Securities.
(Reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto and Leika Kihara; Editing by Michael Perry and Himani Sarkar) ((email@example.com; +813-6441-1828; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org))