Now that the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to next year, speculation is growing that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will call a snap election before his tenure runs out in fall 2021.
Sources familiar with Abe’s thinking said he intends to closely watch how the coronavirus crisis develops while carefully seeking the best timing to dissolve the Lower House for victory in a snap election.
“I’ll focus on the battle against this infectious disease without thinking about such a thing,” Abe told a news conference Saturday in response to a question over a snap election.
Before the Olympics were postponed, it was unclear whether he would call a Lower House election while in office.
Members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party had been thinking that the most likely scenario would be for him to call a snap election as early as autumn this year, while Japan was in a festive mood following the Olympics.
There was also speculation within the LDP that Abe would resign after the Olympics in an effort to preserve his political influence.
But the one-year postponement of the games has rewritten the political playbook.
Speculation emerged after the postponement was decided that a snap election would be called to coincide with the Tokyo gubernatorial election in July.
But an LDP executive said it would be difficult to hold a Lower House election for the time being, considering the challenge of containing the coronavirus outbreak.
Abe’s third term as LDP president expires at the end of September 2021, while the term of the current Lower House ends on Oct. 21 the same year.
If Abe does not call a snap election, the Lower House campaign and the LDP’s leadership race will take place very close to each other.
“Lower House dissolution could be at the end of this year or after the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics next year,” an LDP executive said.
“But it would seem like we are being pushed into a snap election if it is carried out after the Olympics,” the executive said, adding that the end of this year is highly possible.
Other LDP members expect Abe to go ahead with dissolving the Lower House at the beginning of next year.
The LDP’s performance in a snap election would affect the party’s leadership race.
Possible candidates to lead the LDP include policy chief Fumio Kishida, Abe’s favored successor, and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who has maintained a distance from the prime minister.
“If the Abe Cabinet’s approval rating is high when he steps down, it will work in favor of Kishida. If Abe faces a backlash, it will work in favor of Ishiba,” a veteran LDP member said.
If the LDP were to win a Lower House election in a landslide, calls could grow within the party for Abe to serve a fourth term as party president, sources familiar with the situation said.