As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga prepares for the start of an extraordinary Diet session, set to open Monday, he also has to contend with the growing question of when he will call an election.
Suga’s tenure as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president will end next September and the terms of Lower House lawmakers will expire the following month, leaving Suga with limited wiggle room to form a strategy on dissolving the Lower House.
Calling an election at the right moment has been always an arduous task for prime ministers. For Suga, who was appointed to the role just a month ago, it is an important test of his acumen as a politician and, depending on the outcome, could embolden or weaken his standing within the ruling party.
Buoyed by optimism and high expectations for the new administration that were reflected in early polls, political spectators in Nagatacho, the nation’s political center, had anticipated Suga would pull the trigger in the early days of his administration. A Kyodo News survey conducted shortly after he took office in mid-September showed the approval rating for his Cabinet at 66.4%, with disapproval at just 16.2%.
But Suga himself seemed to extinguish the prospect of an early Lower House election.
“I want to get some work done, since I just assumed the role of LDP president,” Suga said in a news conference immediately after his victory in the party’s leadership contest, adding that he needed to take the pandemic situation into consideration as well.
If the prime minister decides to hold an election next year, he will have very little flexibility on when to do so as several important events are already scheduled. The postponed Olympic Games are expected to take place in July, and the Tokyo assembly election is set to take place around that time as well.
The Tokyo vote is vital for Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, and it has been widely noted that Komeito is averse to holding a general election immediately before or after a local campaign as it would wish to concentrate its efforts on the latter.
If the summer of 2021 is out of the picture, only three viable scenarios remain: at the start of next year’s Diet session, in January; immediately after the fiscal 2021 budget is passed, in the spring, or close to the expiration of Lower House lawmakers’ terms, in the fall.
Besides cooperation with Komeito, Suga may also contemplate working with Nippon Ishin no Kai, a right-leaning opposition party with whose leaders the prime minister has strong working relationships, said Jun Iio, a professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Suga, the professor predicted, will probably not dissolve the Lower House this year, as keeping the decision available to him as long as possible, like a trump card, would help maintain his power.
Even though Suga may be tempted to call for a snap vote if his Cabinet’s approval rating slips, the LDP holds a commanding lead in all major polls on approval compared to other parties.
In a Kyodo News poll this month, the LDP’s approval rating was 45.8% — far ahead of the rating for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the largest opposition party, which saw the approval of just 6.4%.
Nippon Ishin, which had a 4.2% approval rating in the Kyodo poll, is currently preoccupied with November’s referendum on the Osaka metropolis plan. Ichiro Matsui, head of the party, said in September he would prefer the general election to be held the same day as the referendum to boost voter turnout.
But the prime minister might have been dissuaded from such move, since Nippon Ishin and the LDP’s Osaka chapter are divided on the issue. The administration has been ambivalent on whether it supports the metropolis proposal, and holding the general election on the same day could be taken as an implicit nod for the plan.
Like most prime ministers, Suga has been tight-lipped on when he may call a vote. In maintaining this uncertainty, it is convenient for the prime minister to hint at the possibility of a snap election whenever he thinks it necessary to shake things up within the party, Iio said.
“Suga is a self-assured individual who doesn’t believe his administration’s popularity will decline, as he believes he is getting work done (on lowering cell phone bills and promoting digitalization) and would dare to challenge anyone who seeks to replace him,” Iio said. “It’d be advantageous to hold on to the right to call a general election, to avoid the possibility of being forced out by (the LDP’s) factional dynamics.”
Traditionally, prime ministers from the LDP are members of one of its factions, to maintain their status and amass support. But Suga doesn’t belong to any of them, leaving him without a solid support base and more vulnerable to friction between caucuses.
Political parties have begun preparations to field candidates for each electoral district. The CDP, which acquired new lawmakers from the Democratic Party for the People through a merger this summer, is looking to work with other opposition parties to back the same candidates. Some within the party, though, are unwilling to cooperate further with the Japanese Communist Party.
The opposition parties’ undertaking for a unified counterforce against Suga could break down, Iio said, if Nippon Ishin puts forward candidates across the country to divide up votes.
“Suga doesn’t believe he’d win an election without machinating on various fronts,” he added.
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