2020 was a year full of things no one predicted for Japan: a global pandemic, a postponed Tokyo Olympics and a prime ministerial resignation, to name a few. While many will be sighing in relief at the prospect of a new year, the roller coaster ride for Japanese politics is not over. 2021 will still be a year to watch as we could yet again see a change in administration.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s power atop the government is not assured, and with some significant elections scheduled, domestic politics could once again shake things up at the top. That of course has important and far-reaching implications both for Japan and its partners — so it will be important to observe a few things in particular this coming year.

The COVID-19 effect

This past week, Japan recorded its highest yet numbers of COVID-19 cases. The uptick in numbers has been dramatic, as has the drop in Suga’s approval ratings these past few months. When Suga took office, he enjoyed a 62 percent approval rating, but that number has dropped twenty points in just three months. The public backlash prompted Suga to suspend the Go To Travel campaign ahead of new year festivities; but even this move is receiving criticism. Some say that his decision came too late, while others are decrying his choice to hurt small businesses ahead of an important travel season for the country.

The Go To Travel debacle reveals a Catch-22 situation for the Suga administration in its COVID policies. If the administration takes drastic action by trying to lock down areas, restrict public gatherings, suspend in-office work and discourage free movement, it will cause a drop in approval ratings unless there is a phenomenal and sustained improvement in Japan’s COVID numbers. Conversely, if Suga takes a relaxed approach focused on jump-starting the economy but COVID numbers increase, it will cause a drop in approval ratings.

Thus, the most likely outcome now is that Suga will try to take a middle-of-the-road approach between those two options in hopes that a vaccine will bail him out from having to take decisive action one way or the other. This approach is not unlike many of Suga’s prime ministerial predecessors, but indecisive and ineffective prime ministers do not tend to last long, especially during troubled times.

The Olympics effect

Right now, the Suga administration is dead set on holding the Olympics this coming summer. The problem is, if Japan cannot get the pandemic under control, it will put Suga in yet another Catch-22 situation.

If the Suga administration permits foreign travelers to come into Japan and there is a major spike in COVID cases, he will pay for it in the polls. If the Suga administration restricts the number of foreign travelers allowed to enter the country (or imposes such draconian rules that it makes it impractical to travel to Japan), then it will affect the revenue that the Olympics are supposed to generate and contribute to a subpar event on the world stage. That will also cause a negative impact on his polling.

Suga’s only respite in this situation will come if external factors save the day. Perhaps a vaccine will be widely available by then, giving Suga the opportunity to shift blame to pharmaceuticals rather than policies if COVID numbers still spike. Maybe members of the international community will begin pulling out of the Olympics, which would alleviate Suga of the responsibility if the games fail to live up to the lofty expectations that existed prior to this year. Either way, the challenges of holding a postponed Olympics are great, and Suga will have to navigate them this coming year.

LDP presidential race

One might wonder why this article places so much emphasis on polling numbers: That is because Suga is facing two major elections in 2021. The first worth mentioning is the Liberal Democratic Party Presidential race that will take place no later than the end of September 2021.

Suga won the last party presidential election because he was the LDP faction heads’ favorite candidate not named Shigeru Ishiba. The party changed the rules of the election to handicap Ishiba in the race, effectively installing Suga as a compromise until they could work out who else may be their preferred pick for the job. How can we know that LDP heavyweights already had an eye on the next potential candidate? Well, what is normally a three-year term that comes with winning the party presidential race was reduced to one year for this exceptional case.

Observers of Japanese politics must keep in mind that Suga will have important choices to make related to managing intraparty politics if he hopes to survive in the post past next Autumn.

The Lower House election

The term for the House of Representatives, or Lower House, is set to expire in October 2021. As such, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition has the option of waiting it out until the expiration of the term to convene a general election, or the prime minister can dissolve the Lower House early and call for a snap election.

The ruling LDP-Komeito coalition will seek timing for an election that can guarantee the best outcomes for themselves, but the available windows are limited. At this point, they could look to call for a snap election after the budget is passed — usually around March — meaning an April election. They may seek to hold the election before the Olympics, targeting late June. The final option is to align the Lower House election with the LDP presidential race, either in late September or October 2021.

Each window comes with its own set of challenges. The COVID effect will likely still impact a springtime election. The Olympics effect could influence the early summer and autumn votes. Right now, the safest play for the LDP is to align the Lower House election with the LDP presidential race. This allows the party to play the political card that the LDP is seeking to respect the will of the Japanese people by letting them judge the LDP’s choice for its leader with a general election that immediately follows. However, depending on the success or failures associated with COVID and the Olympics, these prospects may change.

Factional moves

Finally, observers of Japanese politics should be watching factional moves in 2021. Given the two important elections detailed above, the factions that make up the LDP will be posturing.

Right now, there is not a clear successor to Suga. It is well known that Fumio Kishida and Taro Kono have set their sights on becoming prime minister, but neither is strongly positioned to make that move within this coming year. Kishida still does not have the factional numbers to back him, and Taro Kono, while popular among the public, runs the same risk of Ishiba as being too much of a challenge to the LDP’s old guard to gain the necessary interfactional support.

Meanwhile, Shigeru Ishiba announced that he was stepping down as faction head. But that does not mean he is completely out of the game, especially if Suga’s approval ratings plummet and the LDP feels that its control of the government is under threat. It will still be important to watch his movements in 2021 because although he is down, he is not yet out.

Other potential hopefuls have been quiet about their prospects, namely Toshimitsu Motegi and Katsunobu Kato, but that does not mean they are write-offs. Especially if the LDP cannot find another viable candidate and Suga’s polling numbers drop dramatically owing to COVID-19 or the Olympics effects, then they will want a stable player to install that has decent factional support. Motegi and Kato both come from the third strongest Takeshita faction, though both also have close allies in the largest Hosoda faction (not least of which is former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe).

Whatever moves these factions make, it is important for observers to recognize that in a year with a party leadership race and a Lower House election, every one of them counts.

Dr. 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.

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