Tokyo, Jan. 4 (Jiji Press)–The biggest political issue in Japan this year is the timing of the next general election, with the tenure for the House of Representatives lawmakers set to end in October.
The main option Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga seems to be examining is to dissolve the all-important lower chamber of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, in autumn after the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are held, according to the prevailing view in the ruling bloc.
But Suga may have to reconsider the timing as his power base is being eroded amid the unrelenting spread of the novel coronavirus. He is also suffering from a slump in public approval ratings for his cabinet.
In talks with a former cabinet minister late last month, Suga again expressed his cautious view about an early Lower House dissolution.
“I want to do my work thoroughly and produce outcomes,” Suga told the former minister close to him. The government claims to be “a cabinet that works for the people.”
The raging coronavirus epidemic seems to have made it impossible to dissolve the chamber this month, leaving the possibilities narrowed effectively to two.
One option is between late March, after the expected Diet passage of the government’s fiscal 2021 budget, and July 23, the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics.
The other is between Sept. 5, the Paralympics closing day, and Oct. 21, when the Lower House lawmakers reach the end of their term.
Many ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers say the latter window seems to be Suga’s main option.
The government expects to start COVID-19 vaccinations of medical workers as early as late February. If the spread of the virus is curbed and the Tokyo Games are held successfully, Suga will be able to make an election campaign pitch that Japan overcame the epidemic under his leadership.
An autumn election would also give Suga time to log some achievements, such as a proposed revision to the special measures law for tackling the epidemic, smartphone charge cuts and the launch of a digital agency set for Sept. 1.
“I think it would be a good idea to dissolve the chamber before being forced into doing it, but Suga have no such inclination at all,” a source close to the prime minister said.
Another reason appears to be Komeito. The LDP’s junior coalition partner does not want the general election to take place near the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, slated for just before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics.
In his New Year’s press conference Monday, Suga said that the next Lower House election will be held “sometime in autumn.” But he quickly corrected the remark through his press office, now saying that the poll will take place “sometime by autumn.”
Still, uncertainty lies ahead.
Suga might have to change his strategy if the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are called off. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out after apparently highly infectious variants of the virus were found in Japan late last month.
Another headache is money scandals involving politicians.
Former agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa is being investigated by prosecutors for allegedly receiving cash from a former egg production company leader while in office. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is under fire for his office’s suspected covering of some costs of dinner parties held for voters on the eve of the government’s annual cherry blossom-viewing event in recent years.
The opposition is expected to make the scandals an election issue in two upcoming by-elections, which will be the first national polls since Suga took office in September last year.
The by-elections will be held on April 25 in the No. 2 Lower House constituency in Hokkaido and the Nagano prefectural constituency of the House of Councillors, the upper chamber, to fill the vacancies created by the resignation of Yoshikawa as a lawmaker and the death of Yuichiro Hata, a member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
If the ruling camp loses both by-elections, LDP lawmakers may demand that the party’s presidential election be moved up from September, putting pressure on Suga to step down.
In such circumstances, Suga may have little choice but to time the general election to coincide with the by-elections. “In order to prevent political destabilization, Suga must dissolve the chamber soon after the budget is enacted,” a former cabinet minister said.
For the CDP, the next general election will be a crucial test of whether it can gain a foothold on its envisioned path toward ousting the LDP from power.
Opposition parties will need to join forces to vie against the ruling camp, which holds more than two-thirds of the Lower House seats.
But the CDP has made little progress in talks for election cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party.
The CDP also needs to mend relations with the Democratic Party for the People. Both parties were created by former members of the now-defunct Democratic Party, which split into competing groups.