Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's options for dissolving the House of Representatives for a snap election are dwindling as public support falls and the coronavirus crisis drags on.
Some lawmakers are bracing for the possibility that Abe might dissolve the Lower House in autumn, but many others don't expect that to happen so early.
Observers say Abe might not even be able to dissolve the powerful chamber if another scandal breaks and erodes support from his Liberal Democratic Party.
Abe has "no choice but to dissolve the chamber in autumn or at the start of the next ordinary Diet session in January next year," said a veteran LDP lawmaker who met with the prime minister recently.
The lawmaker has told some of his peers to start preparing for an election this autumn, when the four-year terms of all of its members will end on Oct. 21, 2021.
The next general election began emerging as a popular topic among politicians in both the ruling and opposition camps after Abe fully lifted the COVID-19 state of emergency in late May.
Some lawmakers see a fall election as likely because there are many events next year that will make it difficult to dissolve the chamber without disrupting them.
Among them are the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, which must be held before the members' terms end on July 22. That will be followed by the Tokyo Olympics, slated for July 23 to Aug. 8, and the Paralympics, set for Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.
Komeito, the LDP's ally in the ruling coalition, has made it clear it does not want a Lower House election to happen anytime near the Tokyo assembly election.
But many LDP lawmakers just don't expect Abe to dissolve the Lower House this fall.
"The situation would be far from good for an election," a senior LDP member said.
Media polls show public support for Abe's Cabinet is slumping, with an end to the coronavirus pandemic nowhere in sight.
Public trust in the administration has been heavily damaged by scandals related to Hiromu Kurokawa, the senior Tokyo prosecutor who quit last month after found playing mahjong for money with journalists despite the stay-at-home request issued for the state of emergency.
Shortly before that, the government had extended his tenure beyond the mandatory retirement age by abruptly changing its interpretation of law. After the scandal, the Abe administration was forced to scrap a bill to raise the retirement age for prosecutors, which was widely regarded as a measure to justify the extension of Kurokawa's tenure.
There seem to be no factors at the moment that could bolster public support for the administration.
After the Paralympics, Abe will reach the end of his term as LDP president in late September 2021, the month before the Lower House members' terms expire.
If the Abe administration enters this period, there will be little room left for him to call a snap election.
Moreover, the administration would find itself in a new crisis if the pandemic doesn't end and the Tokyo Games are canceled. In this case, Abe would lose support from many members of his party.
The LDP could then move up its presidential election to let its next leader dissolve the chamber.
"We guess a Lower House dissolution would come after the presidential election," said a senior member of an LDP faction that is a rival of one closely associated with Abe.
Another factor that could influence Abe's fate is the future course of the bribery scandal involving former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai of the LDP and his wife, Anri, an LDP colleague.
Depending on how and whether the criminal investigations progress, calls for replacing Abe could rise within the LDP.