In Nagatacho, Japan’s political heart, there is a saying: “one inch ahead is darkness” — the situation changes with dizzying speed.
Tuesday night might rank as one of the best examples, as one media organization after another reported that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was considering dissolving the Diet in mid-September, thereby setting a general election in mid-October, ahead of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest scheduled for Sept. 29.
Within a few hours of Wednesday’s morning papers hitting newsstands, Suga dispelled such notions and underscored that the coronavirus response remains the administration’s “highest priority.”
“I believe we’re not in a situation to dissolve the Lower House, considering the current difficult situation,” Suga told reporters Wednesday morning. “I’m also not thinking about pushing back the LDP presidential race.”
In light of Suga’s remarks, the most likely scenario for the Lower House election is an Oct. 17 voting day, with campaigning officially kicking off Oct. 5. But the situation remains fluid and Suga could change his mind at any minute — as dissolving the House of Representatives is the prime minister’s exclusive prerogative.
Here are some possible scenarios that Suga could be contemplating:
Suga’s approval ratings have unraveled due to the public’s strong dissatisfaction with the administration’s pandemic response, as well as his inability to satisfactorily explain anti-virus measures and present a coherent exit strategy. LDP lawmakers and political analysts had earlier speculated he might be inclined to push back the election date as late as possible to buy time for more people to be vaccinated and the number of severely ill patients to decline.
But with little prospect that his support will recover, Suga is intending to shake up the LDP’s executive lineup, replacing powerful Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to placate discontented lawmakers in the party and charm the public with new faces. The lineup restructuring and possible Cabinet reshuffle could take place as early as next week.
Lower House election on Oct. 17
If the prime minister decides to call a snap election by dissolving the Diet, the election needs to be held within 40 days, according to the Constitution. If this happens, lawmakers will lose their position as members of the Diet before their term expires on Oct. 21, inevitably creating a political vacuum.
If Suga dissolves the Lower House this month, Oct. 17 is the most realistic date for a poll, as it would take roughly a month to prepare for the general election. But that is not the only way Suga can secure that date, and in fact an alternative path is more desirable because it would avoid a vacuum between the expiration of lawmakers’ terms and an election.
For LDP lawmakers, dissolving the Diet would mean they are not able to cast a ballot to choose the party’s next chief, as a portion of the votes are allocated to them, and as such the party’s presidential race would be postponed. The reports on the Diet dissolution leading up to Wednesday morning convulsed Japan’s political scene — maybe even causing a panic — because observers speculated that Suga might have been attempting to delay the presidential race, and some lawmakers were agitated since they would enter the campaign season with Suga as a party leader.
The poll could also proceed on Oct. 17 without the dissolution of the Diet if members serve out their terms.
On Wednesday, Suga affirmed that the LDP leadership race will carry on as scheduled. Should he be re-elected as the party leader on Sept. 29, he can then move forward with the Cabinet decision on the election date and let an Oct. 17 vote happen, with that date falling into place owing to a combination of the law and political convention.
His remark is also confirmation, at least for now, that a general election before Oct. 17 is not plausible.
Under the current Constitution, there have been 25 Lower House elections, of which 24 were the result of the prime minister dissolving the legislative branch. The exception happened in 1976 under then-Prime Minister Takeo Miki.
A Lower House member’s term is four years. According to election laws, a Lower House election needs to take place within 30 days prior to the term limit. Since current lawmakers’ terms will expire Oct. 21, the election thus would occur between Sept. 21 and Oct. 20.
The Oct. 17 date appears to be the most realistic under current circumstances if Suga foregoes dissolving the parliament and opts to seek Cabinet approval for the general election.
In principle, elections are usually held on Sundays. Oct. 17, the closest Sunday to the term expiration date, stands out as the likeliest date.
In order for the election to go ahead, the campaign would kick off around Oct. 5.
Lower House election after Oct. 17
However, if a challenger to Suga won the LDP presidential contest, an extraordinary Diet session would be convened so that the person can be installed as prime minister and form a Cabinet.
If the Suga Cabinet approves an Oct. 17 vote but a new party president becomes the prime minister, that person has only a few days at their disposal to prepare for the general election. In such a case, the new prime minister could disregard the Cabinet decision and dissolve the Lower House close to Oct. 21.
Since the law stipulates that a general election needs to be held within 40 days of the dissolution date, the new prime minister could hold an election as late as Nov. 28.
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who has announced his intention to run in the LDP leadership contest, has pushed back against talk of putting off the presidential election by calling a snap election either before or during the LDP campaign. Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi is also eager to throw her hat into the ring.
Suga could also retain the option to dissolve the Diet close to Oct. 21, meaning he could similarly call the general election for as late as Nov. 28.
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