A snap Lower House election this autumn appears increasingly unlikely, following comments by senior ruling party leaders that the priority for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is dealing with the coronavirus.

But behind the scenes, jockeying within the Liberal Democratic Party between potential Abe successors has intensified, while the main opposition parties continue to discuss the possibility of merging before an election is called.

Speaking to NHK on Sunday morning, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga appeared to rule out a September or October general election — the subject of much recent media speculation.

“It’s the prime minister’s decision. But what’s important is that the government makes efforts to deal with the coronavirus,” he said.

Suga’s negative attitude toward an autumn election echoes those that he and other senior party officials have made in recent days. On Friday, coalition partner Komeito’s secretary-general, Tetsuo Saito, told reporters there was no national support for holding an election.

“Now is the time for putting all of our efforts into containing the spread of the coronavirus and restarting social and economic activities,” Saito said.

Over the past few weeks, there had been growing reports that Abe might dissolve the Diet and hold a Lower House election sometime in the autumn. That was at a time when infections appeared to be declining. Abe’s term as president of the LDP ends next year, and an election victory this year could strengthen his ability to name a successor or even, as some have suggested, extend his term past 2021.

Reports of a possible autumn election also come amid recent moves by key LDP leaders, including Suga, to raise their profiles among the party and the public. Former Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba, a longtime Abe rival and critic, has been particularly active, meeting with LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida last month as well as speaking to the Osaka chapter of the LDP.

While Kishida is also considered a strong possibility to replace Abe, he is less popular than Ishiba in most public opinion polls. The two men head their own party factions. An agreement by both factions to support the same candidate for LDP president after a snap election could heavily influence the final result.

However, Ishiba has also expressed opposition to a fall election.

Kishida, who has been far less critical of Abe, met with the prime minister last Thursday to discuss a widely predicted Cabinet reshuffle next month and to discuss his own prospects for the post. Though long considered a potential prime minister by political insiders, Kishida is also seen as lacking the communication and rhetorical skills needed to galvanize the public.

The main opposition parties, especially the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People, have been attempting to forge a merger for months. Last month, reports indicated a merger was close. But fundamental differences between some of the more progressive members of the CDP and the more conservative members of the DPP have stymied a final deal.

But pressure to complete the merger quickly is growing from other opposition figures. With an eye to joining, former Democratic Party of Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, now a Lower House member who leads a group of seven unaffiliated Diet members, called on both parties Friday to come to a basic merger agreement by Friday.

A snap election this autumn would make it hard for any newly merged party to compete. It would also force Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, both of whom have been touted as future prime ministerial candidates, to quickly decide on their political futures.

But quitting to run for a Lower House seat would risk a voter backlash and accusations they are abandoning their posts at a critical time. Koike was re-elected by a landslide last month and Tokyo is facing another spike in coronavirus infections. She has said returning to national politics is not on her mind but has made no secret in the past of her desire to become Japan’s first female prime minister.

In Yoshimura’s case, he, too, is dealing with rising numbers of coronavirus infections locally. But there is also the question of Osaka’s merger referendum on Nov. 1. While the merger is only about the city, not the prefecture, supporters of the merger are counting on the now popular governor to help ensure its victory, which is a basic goal of Nippon Ishin, his political party. He, too, however, has said he has no interest in running for a Diet seat despite growing support in Osaka for him to do so.

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