PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – 2020 was set to be a highlight year for many Japanese politicians, but the disruptions from COVID-19 have affected the political calendar in important ways. From Diet session dates to state visits to a Cabinet reshuffle, the rearrangement of events will influence decision-making at various levels of government.
While some of this is still subject to change pending the status of the pandemic, there are important markers to keep an eye on in the political landscape.
Despite the declared state of emergency, the Diet’s “ordinary session” will continue until June, as stipulated by the Diet Law. The Abe administration will not want to extend the regular session unless there is exceptional legislation related to COVID-19 that requires passage.
Instead, one should expect the administration to take a break during the summer until convening an extraordinary session in October. This will allow the ruling coalition to address legislative priorities, some of which will be directly related to COVID-19 and others that fell off during the current session because of the outbreak.
Following the closing of the Diet’s regular session, there is a significant political event scheduled in July, albeit not at the national level. The Tokyo gubernatorial election is set to take place this summer, meaning there will be a challenge to Gov. Yuriko Koike’s incumbency. Gubernatorial elections do not often garner worldwide media attention, but this one will because of who holds the seat and the constituency that is at stake.
One obvious reason for attention is that the winner of the Tokyo governor’s seat will host the Olympic Games that were postponed until next summer. There are already a slew of practical and logistical issues attached to that postponement, including who will shoulder the costs associated with it.
There will assuredly be more as the nation’s capital approaches the task of holding what will inevitably be Japan’s largest public gathering since the outbreak of COVID-19. How will the metropolitan government handle training for volunteers beforehand? What will it do to manage travel restrictions and health precautions? While the national government will be at the helm for developing some of these policies, many of the implementation responsibilities will fall to whoever sits in the governor’s office.
The other reason this is a notable political event is that the incumbent, Koike, was once a challenger on the national stage. Many will recall back in 2017 when she launched the Party of Hope in an attempt to wrest Diet seats away from the ruling coalition.
Koike has demurred when asked about her intent for the next Tokyo election, but her decision here will be important. She has demonstrated her willingness to challenge the national government on various issues, not least of which is the recent response to COVID-19. Expect Koike to remain active and in the spotlight until the election.
With any luck, the country will be beyond the worst of COVID-19 by the end of the summer, at which point the national government will have to start making up for missed events. The most notable of which is the planned state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Japanese government was preparing to host Xi this month, but on March 5 it was announced the visit would be postponed. This was set to be the first state visit by a Chinese head of government in over a decade, and Xi was scheduled to spend time with both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the newly ascended Emperor Naruhito.
The Abe administration will be keen to reschedule this event as soon as possible, and that has implications for the government’s near-term policies vis-a-vis China. The economic impact of COVID-19 carries significance for the Sino-Japanese relationship, and although the Abe administration has encouraged Japanese companies to decouple supply chains from China, the reality is that the region will be in recovery mode and both countries will need their mutually beneficial business relationships to rebound.
Japan has the difficult task of balancing this with ongoing security issues and policy response to the likely scenario that China’s mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated global impacts. The Abe administration will have to tread a thin line in its approach toward China for the near term.
As a result, observers should expect muted responses from Abe on China in the political realm. The administration will work to reschedule the Xi visit and keep the ties healthy enough to foster a solid recovery effort in the near term.
In the meantime, it will neither strongly praise nor critique China over its handling of the coronavirus. For an example of this approach, one may look at the Abe administration’s stance toward the World Health Organization, for which the Abe government acknowledged that reform may be necessary but encouraged the world to continue funding and supporting it. This middle ground approach will characterize Japan’s interactions with China until recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is well underway.
While all of this is going on, many will continue to speculate on Prime Minister Abe’s fate. Will he call a snap election? Will there be an internal leadership change within the Liberal Democratic Party?
Neither of those outcomes are likely in the near term. The LDP-Komeito coalition is facing no significant nationwide elections until October 2021 when the current Lower House term expires. The next Upper House election is not until summer 2022 and the next unified (prefectural and municipal) election will not take place until April 2023.
Meanwhile, although Abe’s approval ratings have taken a hit over the administration’s tepid COVID-19 response, the real danger zone leading to an internal leadership struggle in Japan is when a prime minister’s approval rating falls below 20 percent. Until then, there is not enough impetus for the party to disrupt the “stability” that has been the main selling point for the ruling coalition. Absent a major downturn in public opinion — that is, about 20 more points — expect Abe to hold onto the reins of power.
Because the Lower House term is set to expire in October 2021, a snap election is always an option for Abe, but more of a “break glass” one at this point during the COVID-19 response.
There are three reasons for this: first, Komeito will not go along with it. There have already been rumors of Komeito President Natsuo Yamaguchi threatening to break up the coalition if Abe did not yield to Komeito’s preferences for stimulus packages, and the LDP will not threaten the coalition further by forcing an unwanted election on its junior partner.
Second, the ruling coalition will not want to test the waters in attempting to run campaigns during a period of social distancing. There is a method of campaigning in Japan, and it is incompatible with the measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Finally, the ruling coalition will want to wait until some of the stimulus packages start arriving to constituents before calling for an election. They would not miss the opportunity to take credit for the extra money in voters’ pockets.
In the interim, the most likely outcome related to a leadership shakeup is a Cabinet reshuffle before the extraordinary session of the Diet this year, meaning the September/October time frame. A Cabinet reshuffle will allow Abe to pacify internal competitors within the LDP while giving his Cabinet a new face for the public. In the past, reshuffles have garnered as much as a 10-point boosts in public approval.
The timing also lines up well, as the current Cabinet members will have held their seats for a year come September. Under normal circumstances, Cabinet reshuffles occur about once a year, so it is reasonable to expect that Abe will employ this option. If the Cabinet reshuffle fails to stabilize his power, Abe can always keep a snap election in reserve, a tactic he demonstrated in 2014 with an October reshuffle and a December snap election.
Assuming the Cabinet reshuffle stabilizes his position, Abe will still have to decide when to call a snap election since the term expires in October 2021 and his term as LDP president ends the month before.
The LDP has demonstrated that it will always prefer calling a snap election at a politically beneficial opportunity rather than letting the term expire. Given this, the latest observers should expect the snap election to occur is following the conclusion of the Olympics in August or September. Springtime 2021 also remains a likely option for the government.
Justifiably, COVID-19 has dominated public discourse for the past few months. This strategic shock in the form of a global pandemic has had far-reaching effects across the world, and it will continue to have an impact on life for the coming months. In the meantime, politics are still politics, and they will still go on, albeit with a new calendar here in Japan.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.
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