Asia Politics

Japan's Abe 'looks like a lame duck' as his government comes under fire for its coronavirus response

Key Points
  • Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe "looks like a lame duck" as public criticism of his administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak mounts, says Teneo Intelligence's Tobias Harris.
  • 55% of respondents in a recent Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll said they do not have a favorable view of the Japanese government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • All that comes as the Japanese economy — already hit from a plunge in consumer spending following a hike in the consumption tax last October — has been dealt a major blow from the coronavirus outbreak.
Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, removes his protective face mask during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, May 14, 2020.
Akio Kon | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe "looks like a lame duck" as public criticism of his administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak mounts, according to Tobias Harris, Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence.

"Despite an effective response compared with many other countries Abe hasn't been rewarded with higher approval ratings, and has in fact been falling," Harris told CNBC in an email.

Those comments came on the back of a recent Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll where 55% of respondents said they do not have a favorable view of the Japanese government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak. As of 12:00 local time on May 18, Japan had confirmed 16,305 cases and seen 749 deaths, according to the country's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

Harris said part of the reason for the decline in Abe's approval ratings has been due to the perception that he reacted "too slowly to the pandemic."

Unlike its peers in the region, Japan initially resisted declaring a nationwide state of emergency until the middle of April, when it reportedly had more than 9,000 infections and nearly 200 deaths in the country.

To exacerbate matters, Harris said public discontent has also increasingly been fueled by the Japanese government's push to extend the retirement age for prosecutors from 63 to 65.

Critics of the proposed change have raised concerns over its potential damage to the fairness of the country's judicial system as it allows the administration to decide which prosecutors can prolong their stay in office, according to local news agency Kyodo News.

For his part, Harris said the move by the Japanese government has been perceived as "a naked power grab and is widely unpopular."

Crumbling economy

All that comes as the Japanese economy — already hit from a plunge in consumer spending following a hike in the consumption tax last October — has been dealt a major blow from the coronavirus outbreak.

The Japanese economy contracted at an annualized rate of 3.4% in January-March, according to data released Monday by the country's Cabinet Office. That was less than a median estimate of a 4.6% decline by economists in a Reuters poll.

Still, that marked the second straight quarter of contraction, meeting the technical definition of a recession — Japan's first since the second half of 2015 — according to Reuters.

VIDEO1:5401:54
Japan's Q2 GDP could drop by 10% quarter on quarter: Credit Suisse Securities

And the data is set to look worse, according to multiple economists.

Credit Suisse Japan Chief Economist Hiromichi Shirakawa told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia" on Monday that the firm expects a 10% quarter-on-quarter contraction in the second quarter, while Bank of America Global Research's Izumi Devalier expects a plunge of 20% at an annualized rate for that period.

"In terms of the GDP numbers, unfortunately, the worse is yet to come," Devalier, who is head of Japan economics at Bank of America Global Research, told CNBC's "Street Signs" on Monday.

"It's very important to be clear about what this first quarter GDP shows," Devalier said. "Japan really didn't start tightening the restrictions on service sector activity and we really didn't see that decline in mobility until April, when the government declared a state of emergency."

"In some ways, it does capture that decline in consumption that began in March but the worse is gonna come in April," she said.

VIDEO2:4202:42
Japan braces for worst GDP performance in April: BofA Securities