Commentary / Japan

Five things to know about a possible snap election

Following the Tokyo gubernatorial election, rumors continue to swirl in the media about the possibility of a snap Diet election. Will the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition push to get the Lower House election out of the way sooner or later? When might it occur and why?

To gain insight into those answers, it is first necessary to understand the mechanics of a “snap election” in Japan. These types of elections are unique to the Lower House of the Diet (the House of Representatives) and may occur based on one of two prompts.

The first is when the Diet passes a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet, per Article 69 of the Constitution. If that motion passes, the prime minister has the choice to resign or to dissolve the house and call for a general election. This situation is rare, however, and is also not one that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has to worry about right now.

The second prompt for a snap election is based on a loose interpretation of Article 7 of the Constitution that it empowers the prime minister to dissolve the Lower House unilaterally. The dissolution of the House then generates the requirement to hold a general election within 40 days. Importantly, as a matter of practice, the prime minister only dissolves the Lower House when it is in session. This means the dissolution occurs either during an ordinary session of the Diet (January to June each year) or after the government convenes an extraordinary session.

With this in mind, there are five things to know about the possible snap election that will occur sometime between now and October 2021.

First, snap elections are the norm rather than the exception for the Lower House. These types of elections are common tools for many parliamentary democracies across the globe because they allow the ruling party to time the polls for the most favorable political windows and to keep the opposition unprepared. The tactic is so effective that the LDP has almost exclusively used snap elections, only allowing the Lower House term to expire once since 1955. That occurred in 1976 amid the Lockheed scandal, and even then, many LDP members were upset with Prime Minister Takeo Miki’s decision not to dissolve the Lower House earlier.

Second, the ruling coalition will treat the timing of the election as rumor right up to the last minute. There is incentive for the ruling parties to keep the timing of a snap election close hold. This puts opposition parties on their heels, which places them at a disadvantage given the mechanism of snap elections in Japan. Once the Lower House dissolves, there is limited time for political parties that are unprepared to get their acts together. Finding quality candidates that can challenge incumbents is exceedingly difficult, not only because the party has to identify people who are ready, able and willing to take on the campaign, but because each candidate must submit a ¥3 million ($26,000) deposit to enter the race.

There is also the challenge of building party platforms and campaign strategies — neither of which are easily accomplished in short order. This leaves opposition parties at a disadvantage compared to the ruling coalition, whose weeks or months of preparation and platform of “stability” is much more effective in campaigns than half-baked policies cobbled together at the last minute. Given this, even if many in the Japanese public are not fans of the LDP, the adage “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” tends to be reflected in snap elections.

Third, a snap election is not as simple as “Abe decides when it happens.” Sure, the prime minister has the final say, but there is significant behind-the-scenes politicking taking place between LDP faction leaders right now. Not only that, the junior coalition partner, Komeito, wields influence in the decision since their alliance enables the ruling coalition to maximize electoral gains. Given this, the administration’s internal decision-making process is complex, so take whatever a single LDP or Komeito leader says to the media about a snap election with a grain of salt.

Fourth, whether the snap election is this year or next, the impact will be more on the LDP’s internal leadership dynamics than the composition of the government. The opposition parties have still been unable to generate any energy around their platforms, and they have shown no ability to form a political alliance capable of making a major dent in the ruling coalition’s seat totals. Instead, a snap election will end up being a lot more about who is postured to succeed Abe when the time comes.

All this leads to the fifth and final point: There are only four viable windows for a snap election. The first is this fall near the beginning of the extraordinary session of the Diet. That session usually convenes in late September or early October, and doing it early in the extraordinary session means the ruling coalition does not have to begin legislating bills that will only die when the house dissolves. The last snap election provides an example of this, having taken place in October 2017.

The next opportunity is in December. This is at the tail end of the extraordinary Diet session, after the administration has achieved its legislative agenda. This timing also does two extra things for Abe and the LDP: One, it allows Abe to execute a Cabinet reshuffle in autumn to gain a bump in the polls; and two, it means the ruling coalition can pass legislation that could be perceived as stimulating the economy or improving lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cabinet reshuffle in October 2014 and snap election the following December offers precedent for this option.

After December, Abe will have to wait until the tail end of the next ordinary session of the Diet in May or June 2021 to dissolve the Lower House. He cannot afford to dissolve the chamber while the budget is being deliberated between January and March, and then the ruling coalition will need to prepare before pushing for a snap election. The problem with this option is that it puts the election immediately before the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics.

This highlights one of the considerations influencing Abe’s decision on the four windows, which is the Olympics and the political minefield it presents for the ruling coalition. If waiting to hold the election until right before the games, Abe must worry about an election when he would rather focus on delivering a world-class Olympics. If waiting until after the games take place, the success or failure of the Tokyo Games will likely be reflected in the polls. Certainly, holding an election after an excellent Olympics would be a boon for the ruling coalition, but if the Olympics were to flop, the opposite would result.

The fourth and final option is in that post-Olympics window in the fall of 2021. This snap election will either coincide with the LDP’s party presidential election in September or immediately thereafter. The benefit for this is that the LDP can play the “we support democracy” card, since the public will get an immediate say in its approval or disapproval of the party’s choice for prime minister. The problem is that waiting this long removes all flexibility for the ruling coalition: because the Lower House term expires in October 2021, they will have no choice but to accept whatever the state of political affairs is at the time to hold an election.

As a political observer, making predictions is a foolhardy endeavor, especially when the administration has incentive not to telegraph its moves. However, knowing these five things does enable one to make an educated guess about when a snap election may take place and why.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan.

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