By Hasegawa Yukihiro, journalist
Headwinds increasing for Suga administration
On July 8, the government declared a fourth state of emergency for Tokyo. With the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games set to open on July 23, the Suga administration is facing headwinds after the Liberal Democratic Party’s substantive defeat in the recent Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. The LDP presidential election and the dissolution of the Lower House and general election are coming up in the autumn. How will the political schedule take shape?
Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide was reluctant to announce another state of emergency for the capital, but the surge in daily COVID-19 cases in Tokyo to 920 on July 7 forced his hand. New case figures had exceeded those for the same day of the previous week for 18 consecutive days. At that pace, it was likely only a matter of time before the number of cases would exceed 1,000.
Issuing a state of emergency is unlikely to divert the headwinds faced by the administration. For example, athletes in the Ugandan and the Serbian national teams have tested positive for COVID-19 at time of entry into Japan. As the Games officials and media representatives arrive in Japan, it is almost certain there will be more who test positive.
The worst-case scenario would be the confirmation of an infected Olympics official passing the disease to an average Japanese citizen.
Prime Minister Suga has said that he will hold the Tokyo Olympics to prove “Japan’s reconstruction from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami” and “humanity’s victory over COVID-19.” To the extent he decided to hold the event by steamrolling those who sought to have the Games canceled or postponed again, it is inevitable that he will come under increased criticism.
Tokyo is seeing a decline in the number of COVID-19 deaths. There are concerns about highly virulent and contagious variants, such as the Delta strain, but Japan’s inoculation program is moving forward, and some are optimistic overall that COVID-19 is “in the process of turning into a regular infectious disease, like influenza.”
When will the LDP presidential election and Lower House election be held?
In this context, attention in Nagatacho is focused on the timing of the LDP presidential election and the dissolution of the House of Representatives and the holding of a general election. The mass media, which is critical of the administration, has already reported that some in the ruling parties are saying “Prime Minister Suga cannot win a Lower House election” after the party’s performance in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. With the capital once again in a state of emergency, such reports could increase going forward.
How will the Prime Minister handle the elections? First, let’s look at what Suga has said so far.
On April 16 during his visit to the United States, Prime Minister Suga told reporters, “If I do not win the general election after dissolving the House of Representatives, (my administration) will not stay in office.” At the same time, he expressed his commitment to doing everything in his power to combat COVID-19, saying, “it is my mission to do everything I can so that people feel secure again.”
At a press conference on April 23, Suga touched on the relationship between the LDP presidential election and the dissolution of the House of Representatives, saying, “I must think about the timing for dissolving the house during my tenure as party president.” Putting together all the comments he has made thus far, Suga is saying that “COVID-19 measures are his highest priority” but “if possible, he would like to dissolve the Lower House during his presidency and seek a public mandate by holding an election.”
Three scenarios for the Lower House election
Based on the above, let’s think about possible dates for the Lower House election.
Suga’s term as the LDP president goes through Sept. 30, and the terms of the Lower House members through Oct. 21. Under the Public Offices Election Act, if the extraordinary Diet session scheduled for the autumn is held through the final day of the term of office of the Lower House members (Oct. 21), and if the Lower House is dissolved that day, the voting in the general election could be held as late as Nov. 28.
This is the latest the general election could be held. The more the extraordinary Diet session is prolonged, however, the greater the chance that Suga will be interrogated by the opposition parties. He may be criticized for “trying to work things to his advantage for the election.” For this reason, the November option seems unrealistic.
How does the scenario shift if we add to our calculations the results of the recent Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election and the declaration of a fourth state of emergency for Tokyo? Basically, Suga should want to push back the Lower House dissolution and the general election as much as possible because that would allow his party’s performance in the Tokyo election to fade in people’s memories and the benefits of vaccination to increase in people’s minds.
On the other hand, we need to remember that the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics will be held on Sept. 5. Assuming that the general election will not be held during the Olympics and Paralympics to ensure that Japan can fulfill its responsibilities as the host country, we can conclude that “the LDP presidential election and the dissolution of the House of Representatives will take place between Sept. 6 and Nov. 28.”
In addition to the presidential election and the general election, there is also the issue of “what Suga will do about the extraordinary Diet session.” There are no provisions in the Constitution requiring “the House of Representatives to be dissolved during a Diet session.” In fact, at a meeting of the House of Representatives Committee on Audit in March 1979, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau’s director-general said that “the House of Representatives may be dissolved when the Diet not in session.”
In actuality, however, the House of Representatives has never been dissolved when the Diet is not in session, even going all the way back to the days of the Meiji Constitution. Let’s assume, therefore, that “Prime Minister Suga will dissolve the House during the extraordinary Diet session.”
Judging from Prime Minister Suga’s statements and political stance, it is clear he places top priority on COVID-19 countermeasures. Specifically, he prioritizes vaccinations, followed by economic measures. To vaccinate as many people as possible, the later the general election is held, the better.
In terms of promoting economic measures, it would be best to hold the extraordinary Diet session and approve a supplementary budget after the Paralympics. Even if it is difficult to approve the budget for scheduling reasons, Suga will want to present a general outline of his economic measures as a campaign promise before he goes into the general election. Otherwise, he would not be placing “top priority on COVID-19 measures.”
Is it possible, as Suga said, for him to hold an extraordinary Diet session, approve a supplementary budget, hold the LDP presidential election, and dissolve the House of Representatives between Sept. 6 and 30, which is the last day of his current term as party president?
A supplementary budget can be approved in seven to ten days. Suppose, for example, that the Diet were convened on Sept. 6, the supplementary budget approved by Sept. 16, and the Lower House dissolved that same day. In that case, there are three options for the date of the general election: (A) announce the election on Sept. 21 and hold the voting on Oct. 3; (B) announce the election on Sept. 28 and hold the voting on Oct. 10; and (C) announce the election on Oct. 5 and hold the voting on Oct. 17.
Politicians attach great importance to the Japanese lunar calendar’s six-day cycle of lucky and unlucky days. Given that, it is common sense that Oct. 10 is the best day for the vote, followed by Oct. 17, with Oct. 3 being the least desirable day.
The Lower House cannot be dissolved before the LDP presidential election
What about the LDP presidential election?
According to the LDP’s rules for the election of the party president, “the election date for the vote of the Party Diet members shall be within ten working days in advance of the termination of office of the president.” That is, between Sept. 20 and 30. If the general election were announced on Sept. 21 or 28, the party presidential election would overlap entirely with the general election.
Moreover, it is not just a question of holding the party presidential election. After that there will be a Cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of LDP officers.
If Prime Minister Suga is reelected, it may be okay for all incumbents to continue in office that day, but if another person were elected president, an election to select the prime minister would have to be held during the extraordinary Diet session. After that, the new president would need to create a Cabinet and appoint party officers. This would likely take at least a week.
This means that the announcement of the general election will be in October.
If that is the case, Prime Minister Suga in effect cannot dissolve the House of Representatives before the LDP presidential election, even if it were possible schedule-wise. For example, in the earlier example, if Suga were to dissolve the Lower House on the closing day of the extraordinary Diet session on Sept. 16 and lose the presidential election held soon after that, the new president would end up in the difficult situation of having to win the general election even though he or she did not make the decision to dissolve the Lower House.
In that case, it is inevitable that Suga would be criticized, with people saying, “How dare Prime Minister Suga decide the most important event on the political schedule for the next party president even though it may not be him?” Such a move is questionable in terms of political appropriateness, as well.
Is it looking more and more like the Lower House election will be held on Oct. 17?
So far, we have reached one conclusion: If Prime Minister Suga holds the LDP presidential election as planned, he cannot dissolve the Lower House until the results of the race for party leader are in. In other words, the Lower House will be disbanded in October.
On the other hand, there is also the option of postponing the LDP presidential election. On June 18, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that “Prime Minister Suga is making arrangements to dissolve the House of Representatives in September and postpone the party presidential election, necessitated by the expiration of his term, until after the Lower House election.” On June 19, NHK also reported that “the LDP may extend the term of Prime Minister Suga as party president and hold the presidential election after the Lower House election.”
Without the requirement to hold a party presidential election, it would certainly be possible for Suga to dissolve the Lower House in September. The main reason that some say the Lower House will be dissolved in September is that Prime Minister Suga said, “I will consider dissolving the Lower House during my tenure as president.” If the term of the LDP party president is extended, there is no major reason why the Lower House has to be dissolved in September.
On the contrary, as pointed out earlier, “it should be to Suga’s advantage to delay the general election as much as possible” given the LDP’s substantive defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election and the issuance of a fourth state of emergency for Tokyo. If that is the case, only three options remain.
One is “to hold the LDP presidential election in September and then dissolve the Lower House and hold a general election in October.” In that case, the scenario of “announcing the election on Oct. 5 and holding voting on Oct. 17,” the above-mentioned scenario (C), is possible but the schedule is tight. The next option is “to postpone the party presidential election and dissolve the Lower House and hold the general election in September.” This makes possible the above-mentioned scenario (A) announcing the general election on Sept. 21 and holding voting on Oct. 3 and scenario (B) announcing the general election on Sept. 28 and holding voting on Oct. 10. The last option is “to postpone the presidential election, and dissolve the Lower House and hold the general election in or after October.”
Komeito representative Yamaguchi Natsuo said on a television program on July 5 that “there is also the option of dissolving the House of Representatives and holding the general election after the LDP presidential election necessitated by the expiration of the current party president’s term at the end of September.” The LDP reacted to this, telling the Komeito “not to talk about the affairs of other parties,” but this is close to the scenario of “holding the party presidential election in September and dissolving the Lower House and holding a general election in October. The presidential election, however, may not be held in September.
I speculate that “Prime Minister Suga may be embarrassed by the idea of extending his term of office as president.”
It would be natural for him to be reluctant to extend his term after having said he will “dissolve the Lower House while in office.” I think the option of not extending his term but “holding the party presidential election, as prescribed, winning it in a dignified manner and then disbanding the Lower House” is more in character for Prime Minister Suga, who is a stickler for acting in a consistent fashion, even if that means he will face some disadvantages with this option. Even if he loses, he can maintain his image as a man whose word is good.
Furthermore, even if the party presidential election is carried out in September as prescribed, it may be that no strong candidate other than Suga can be found. Kishida Fumio still has difficulty in communicating his ideas in a persuasive manner, so he does not stand out as a clear choice. It is questionable whether former LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru and Executive Acting Secretary-General Noda Seiko will be able to find the required 20 LDP Diet members to nominate them so they can qualify to run in the election.
Kono Taro and Koizumi Shinjiro, who the media says are promising candidates for LDP president, are incumbent ministers in the Suga administration. Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and LDP Secretary-General Nikai Toshihiro have already expressed their support for Prime Minister Suga. In other words, there is still a good chance that Suga will win the presidential election uncontested.
What if the Lower House election is held without the dissolution of the Lower House? The Public Offices Election Act stipulates that general elections necessitated by the expiration of the Diet members’ term must be held within 30 days before the end of the term. This would mean there are four possible dates for the election: Sept. 26, Oct. 3, Oct. 10, and Oct. 17.
If the party presidential election is carried out as scheduled, three of the options are rendered unfeasible, as explained above. The only date remaining is Oct. 17. At this point, then, the most promising option is for “the LDP presidential election to be held in September and the Lower House election vote to take place on Oct. 17 whether the general election is held due to the dissolution of the Lower House or due to the expiration of the Diet members’ term in office.”