Whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will call a snap election is expected to be the biggest issue in Japanese politics in 2020.
Many politicians speculate that Abe may dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election in autumn after this year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
Pundits believe that Abe will carefully consider whether and when to play his general election card while examining the progress of Diet debates on proposed constitutional reform and the opinion of Komeito, the coalition partner of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
“I’ll make a decision on a Diet dissolution without hesitation if the time comes to go to the people,” Abe said last month during a television program.
The four-year term for Lower House lawmakers is set to end Oct. 21, 2021, and lawmakers are increasingly restless as the halfway point has already been reached.
“The Lower House may be dissolved at any moment,” one former Cabinet member said.
But Abe’s administration is also being shaken by a series of problems, such as a bribery scandal related to casino resort plans that has led to the arrest of an LDP lawmaker and fresh cronyism allegations over an annual cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by the prime minister.
That situation has led many ruling and opposition lawmakers to believe that no Lower House dissolution is likely, at least for now. The prevailing view is that a general election would follow the Olympic and Paralympic Games, between late July and early September.
If the election card is retained until 2021, its value will decrease as the end of the Lower House lawmakers’ term approaches.
In Komeito, many members support holding a general election around autumn this year, because they do not want to have a national poll close to the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election already set for summer 2021.
By contrast, many opposition lawmakers are bracing for an imminent general election, reckoning that Abe’s administration wants to move fast before taking any further damage from the unfolding scandals.
Abe’s term as LDP president runs until September 2021. Some LDP members have proposed allowing him to serve a fourth consecutive term by revising LDP rules, even though Abe has denied such a possibility.
Meanwhile, other LDP lawmakers have speculated that Abe may resign just after the Tokyo Games in order to maintain his influence by becoming a kingmaker.
If that happens, the next Lower House election may take place under a new prime minister.
Abe’s potential successors in the LDP include Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, who has indicated readiness to carry on Abe’s policies, and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who seeks a change.
Also seen as promising candidates are Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Defense Minister Taro Kono and welfare minister Katsunobu Kato.
In November 2019, Abe became the longest-serving Japanese prime minister when including his first stint, which lasted 12 months to September 2007.
If Abe stays in power until August this year, his consecutive days in office since returning to power in 2012 will surpass the record set by his great-uncle, Eisaku Sato.
To cap off his long tenure with political legacies, Abe will ramp up efforts to advance debates on constitutional reform, observers say.
“I definitely want to achieve it by my own hand,” Abe has said.
But it is not easy to realize Diet proposals for constitutional amendment.
The LDP plans to pass a bill to revise the national referendum law during the ordinary Diet session set to begin soon, before commencing full debates on how to revise the country’s top law. But things are unlikely to proceed as the LDP hopes, because resistance is expected from major opposition parties.
If Abe dissolves the Lower House to break such a deadlock, the LDP-led ruling camp may lose its two-thirds majority, the minimum required to propose a constitutional revision.
For opposition parties, the key issue is whether they can unite to create a force powerful enough to fight Abe’s administration.
The secretaries-general of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People recently confirmed their intent to merge into a single party.
But the two parties remain apart on basic philosophies and policies, personnel appointments and other issues. The focus is whether they can merge before the ordinary Diet session begins.
Another difficult problem is how to cooperate with the Japanese Communist Party. In the DPP, many members do not want to work with the JCP.
Even if the DPP did merge with the CDP, it is thought the combined party would find it difficult to organize candidates in Lower House constituencies together with the JCP.