BY ERIC JOHNSTON, STAFF WRITER
OSAKA – With the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga officially kicking off Wednesday, talk in Tokyo’s political center is turning to whether the new leader might dissolve the Diet for a snap election.
Some say it could be as early as Oct. 25, while others claim it may be early next year.
Adding fuel to the speculation are remarks by Cabinet ministers on the looming possibility of an early election, making lawmakers jittery.
“We need to think about calling for an early election given that there will be the Olympic Games next year,” Finance Minister Taro Aso said Monday.
Former Defense Minister Taro Kono, who has shifted portfolios to become the minister in charge of administrative reform in the newly established Suga Cabinet, was even stronger with his remarks, saying Sept. 9 that the new prime minister is likely to call a snap election in October.
Why might Suga dissolve the Diet so soon after taking office?
Most new administrations enjoy a brief honeymoon period where media polls show them enjoying a fairly high degree of popularity.
As president of the Liberal Democratic Party, Suga may decide that now is the time to take advantage of any boost in public support and call an election in the hope of firming up the party’s strength in the Lower House.
Also, while Suga may have been elected LDP president and appointed prime minister by the two chambers of the Diet, voters haven’t given him a mandate yet. If he were to call an election and win a mandate from the voting public, he’d be in a better position to push forward his policies and strengthen his political base.
Lower House lawmakers’ terms are scheduled to last until Oct. 21, 2021, which means an election must be held by then at the latest. After an election, another vote won’t be required for four years.
How would a snap election affect Japan’s political scene?
It would be somewhat of a pre-emptive attack on the newly expanded Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which just completed its merger with the Democratic Party for the People to create the country’s largest opposition party with 150 lawmakers.
Holding a snap election anytime soon would force the CDP to quickly come up with candidates in single-district seats within the merged party, and decide whether or not it wanted to cooperate with other opposition parties — especially the Japanese Communist Party, which could create controversy within the party and the voting public — and back a single candidate.
Fielding their own candidates risks splitting the opposition in a single-seat district to the benefit of an LDP-backed candidate. As the new CDP is just getting started, it is not yet fully organized and could suffer a major defeat if an election is suddenly announced.
For the LDP, there would be less impact as lawmakers won’t need to go through a similar process.
On the other hand, a snap election would be welcomed by Nippon Ishin no Kai. Party leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui and members of the party are close to Suga in particular, and believe a quick election would benefit Nippon Ishin, which agrees with the ruling coalition on most major issues despite not being a member of it.
What are some of the obstacles to dissolving the Lower House soon?
One of the biggest worries for Suga might be whether voters will see a snap election as a diversion of political energy and time, as well as taxpayers’ money, when those resources could be focused on tackling the coronavirus pandemic and boosting the struggling economy.
Earlier this month, Suga himself said that the government needed to make its COVID-19 response the top priority.
The ongoing crisis has created worries about the safety of a snap election, especially as the upcoming influenza season adds to the risk of a double health crisis that could either keep people away from polling stations on the day of the election or create voter backlash against the LDP if COVID-19 infection rates spike after an election is held.
Politically, the biggest obstacle to a quick election is coalition partner Komeito, which formally signed an agreement Monday to continue cooperating with the LDP.
Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi has expressed caution at the prospect of an early election, also stressing the need to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. The party is also concentrating on the Tokyo assembly elections next summer and sees a snap election as a distraction that could weaken its chances in that vote. Komeito holds 23 of the 127 assembly seats.
Komeito is also concerned about what a snap election could mean in Osaka, where four Komeito members hold seats. They could face tough challenges if an increasingly popular Nippon Ishin, which has so far agreed not to run candidates against Komeito, changes its mind.
What does the political calendar look like in terms of possible dates?
Much depends on whether there is another extraordinary Diet session next month.
If that takes place, the rumored Oct. 25 date for an election would be unlikely, although it could be scheduled for November or December.
The regular Diet session begins early next year, and the main task is to pass the 2021 fiscal year budget by the end of March. An election after that would be possible.
The Tokyo assembly elections are expected to be held in June or July, and the Tokyo Olympics are slated to begin July 23, which means a snap general election would likely be held before then.