While the notoriously uncharismatic Suga will be little missed at some levels, his departure raises the specter of a return to the era of the revolving door leader, a model of short-termers of little distinction that was blown apart by the record eight years in office for his predecessor Shinzo Abe. Suga, a self-made politician amid various political dynasties, had been the ultimate political dealer. As the head of the powerful Cabinet Office, he played a large part in keeping Abe in power. Transferring these skills to his own cause proved more difficult and, in the end, he became John Major to Abe’s Margaret Thatcher.

His decision came after just one year in office as his cabinet’s popularity rating fell below the politically dangerous 30 percent mark amid record coronavirus infection numbers and fresh problems with a vaccine program that was already well behind other developed countries.

Beleaguered Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has joined the ranks of politicians forced out by public anger over the coronavirus, stunning the political establishment this month by announcing he will not be a candidate in the upcoming vote by the ruling party to determine a new leader, who would in turn run in the general election for prime minister.

Beleaguered Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has joined the ranks of politicians forced out by public anger over the coronavirus, stunning the political establishment this month by announcing he will not be a candidate in the upcoming vote by the ruling party to determine a new leader, who would in turn run in the general election for prime minister.

His decision came after just one year in office as his cabinet’s popularity rating fell below the politically dangerous 30 percent mark amid record coronavirus infection numbers and fresh problems with a vaccine program that was already well behind other developed countries.

While the notoriously uncharismatic Suga will be little missed at some levels, his departure raises the specter of a return to the era of the revolving door leader, a model of short-termers of little distinction that was blown apart by the record eight years in office for his predecessor Shinzo Abe. Suga, a self-made politician amid various political dynasties, had been the ultimate political dealer. As the head of the powerful Cabinet Office, he played a large part in keeping Abe in power. Transferring these skills to his own cause proved more difficult and, in the end, he became John Major to Abe’s Margaret Thatcher.

Suga is far from being the only global leader to pay the price for a pandemic that has left electorates worn and tetchy. Former U.S. President Donald Trump, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and even the once-Teflon Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro all saw their support hit by public dissatisfaction and a feeling that there must be someone to blame.

But Suga’s failings were mostly not his own. Instead, he ended up carrying the can for the system’s mistakes­­—ones that, by global standards, were relatively minor. Japan’s caseload remains well below the levels elsewhere with its mortality rate even lower. The total number of daily cases rose in late August to a record 26,000, still low compared with the U.S. total of around 161,000, let alone last year’s winter peak. The mortality rate comparisons are even more favorable for Japan, with the total number of coronavirus deaths at less than 7 percent of the U.S. level per capita.

The Japanese economy has avoided a catastrophic blowout, and the various “state of emergency” announcements covering about half the country have been small beer. (Beer may itself be the operative word since the current restrictions mainly halted the sale of all alcohol in restaurants and bars, a move anyone could predict would be less than joyously received).

Yet the headlines have still been painful—and sometimes outright grim—for the government. The springtime push for vaccinations, at times exceeding the U.S. target of 1 million shots daily, faltered as supply bottlenecks slowed down the program. There were further problems when some doses of the Moderna vaccine were found to contain metal fragments. Most disturbingly to many, a policy to restrict hospital admissions to only those seriously ill led to the death of a newborn when the mother infected with the coronavirus was forced to give birth at home after no hospital would accept her. While the pandemic has led to many tragic deaths, the incident was a shock to a nation that believed its health care system was among the best in the world.

The prospect that he would be unable to turn around the poll numbers and growing concerns about the broader impact on the party ahead of the general election due by the end of November prompted Suga to throw in the towel. It was a surprising move since, until recently, he seemed to be involved in various backroom machinations to win reelection as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and by extension remain as prime minister.

With Suga’s departure, the leadership race has been thrown wide open just weeks before the vote by party members and LDP parliament members on Sept. 29. Despite discontent over Suga’s handling of the pandemic, his vaccination czar and party maverick Taro Kono leads the public opinion polls with a 32 percent share, according to Japan’s Kyodo News. Shigeru Ishiba, a longtime rival to Abe, ranked second at 27 percent, although it’s not certain if he will actually run. Next in line was former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at 19 percent. Trailing at around 4 percent each were two candidates vying to become Japan’s first-ever female prime minister, former ministers Seiko Noda and Sanae Takaichi.

But the public numbers may mean little since the selection will actually be made, not by Japan’s 126 million people, but by 383 lawmakers and 383 rank-and-file members of the party. Ever since its founding in 1955, the LDP has been in charge of the country for all but two brief periods that add up to less than six years. This virtual lock on power has been heavily criticized, both at home and abroad, as representing a democracy in name only. But it has come about with the support of the voters.

The gerrymandering that helped create the party’s grip in prior generations has largely disappeared but still leaves the LDP with a robust 59 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament. In exchange, the party has built policy along largely consensual lines with change coming slowly, if at all. The conventional wisdom has been that it really didn’t matter that much who was the prime minister (hence the revolving door) since policy was determined by the party leadership collectively.

This model was broken by Abe to some extent. While the public never enthusiastically supported him, despite his best populist efforts, he left a number of notable accomplishments including the rescuing of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact after Trump torpedoed the Obama era deal, completion of a trade pact with the European Union, and a more aggressive defense policy that was part of his goal for a “Free and Open Indo Pacific.”

“Many Japanese pundits are wont to criticize Abe. But his activist foreign policy during almost eight years in office strengthened partnerships with India, ASEAN, and Australia, and demonstrated great leadership at a time of America’s waning reliability and presence in the Indo-Pacific,” said John West, executive director of the Asian Century Institute in Sydney.

In the tradition of Japanese politics, the candidates largely offer a continuation of the status quo in economics and foreign policy. The focus has been on doing a better job on the coronavirus, helping to spur more growth in the economy, and other uncontroversial policy planks. But another consensus now seems to be building over the more controversial issue of taking a tougher line on China.

The old guard of the party has largely seen China as an economic partner not to be riled on issues less central to Japan, such as democracy in Hong Kong, human rights for minorities, or the status of Taiwan. But the new generation of lawmakers appear increasingly uncomfortable with a Beijing that makes increasing demands of partners not just to ignore, but to endorse, its human rights abuses—and also poses a growing security threat.

The issue came to the fore in July when Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister known for his loose tongue, opined that Japan would need to consider helping to defend Taiwan in the case of an attack by China. Other lawmakers, representing a younger generation of those in their 40s and 50s within the party, have pledged support for Taiwan, a “model colony” of Japan’s for decades, by calling for more lawmaker-to-lawmaker talks to skirt the “One China” policy. Some have voiced support for Taiwan to join the successor to the TPP trade deal, a move that China, not a party to the agreement, would have no formal power to stop—although it would undoubtedly lean heavily on smaller member nations within the grouping.

“I think throughout the political spectrum, the support for Taiwan has markedly increased. Kishida has now come out to say that Taiwan will be an important issue for Japan, and Kono is also known for being a Taiwan booster,” said Corey Wallace, a foreign-policy expert a Kanagawa University in Yokohama. Kishida has also suggested that Japan needs to take a more preemptive stance against missile threats. The immediate concern for Japan is over North Korea, but this could extend to China in the longer term.

The person who would worry Beijing the most would be Takaichi, who is seen as the flag bearer for Abe’s nationalist leanings but with greater fervor. She is keen to carry out the revisions to Japan’s pacifist constitution that Abe long championed but never brought to fruition, is a regular visitor to the nationalist Yasukuni Shrine, and would like to see a new prime ministerial statement backtracking on some of Japan’s most notable apologies for its wartime aggressions, such as the 1995 statement by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in which he apologized for the suffering Japan inflicted on other Asian nations through its colonial rule.

Takaichi’s lackluster 4 percent approval rate, despite the backing of the former prime minister, suggests that Japanese voters might be a smidge more hawkish—but they’re still sticking to the LDP’s most treasured tradition: changing things slowly, if at all.