Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday that he has decided not to run in this month's leadership race for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), leaving the position of prime minister open to whoever wins.
Suga took the top job almost a year ago, succeeding Shinzo Abe who stepped down for health reasons. Presiding over the worsening COVID-19 situation and unpopular Olympic games, Suga has seen his support drop below 30%.
The announcement that the prime minister will not contest the party's leadership race on September 29 means he will not lead the party into the next general election, which the government had considered calling for October 17.
The 72-year-old Suga said that instead of campaigning, he would focus on fighting the current wave of COVID-19 infections.
"Running in the race and handling coronavirus countermeasures would have required an enormous amount of energy," he told reporters.
LDP looks for a new leader
The LDP holds a majority of seats in the lower house, meaning whoever follows Suga is all but set to become Japan's next prime minister.
Several party members are already believed to be running for the post. Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, criticized Suga's handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday.
"Kishida is the top runner for the time being but that doesn't mean his victory is assured," Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, told Reuters news agency.
Unlike last year's party leadership election, grassroots members will this year have a say in who takes the top job making predictions more difficult.
Suga's fall from grace
Suga had enjoyed popularity ratings of up to 70% when he first took office, partly due to his background as the son of a strawberry farmer, rather than the heir to a political family, as was the case with his predecessor.
However, he has faced growing criticism over his government's slowness to enact coronavirus protection measures and its insistence on going ahead with the delayed Tokyo Olympic Games despite public concerns over a new surge in infections.
The announcement of his planned departure on Friday spurred the Nikkei average futures market to jump 2%.
"Stock prices are rising based on a view that the chance of LDP's defeat in the general election has diminished because anyone other th an Suga will be able to regain popularity," economist Toru Suehiro told Reuters.