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March 24, 2021

Asia

JAPAN: Suga has no good option as he weighs election timing

BY Tobias Harris

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  • The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held its annual convention for the first time since 2019 on 21 March amid speculation that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga could call a general election as soon as April.
  • Suga could be tempted as his approval ratings have recovered as the pandemic outlook has improved.
  • However, the political environment may still not be conducive to an early election, suggesting it is still relatively unlikely.

Polls have shown that, after plummeting sharply as the third wave of Covid-19 infections crested, the government’s support has stabilized and has even begun to recover to sustainable levels. The rising approval ratings likely reflect falling disapproval of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, as infection and hospitalization rates have stabilized. As the Suga administration’s support has stabilized, the LDP’s structural advantages have reemerged as the dominant factor in Japanese politics. The opposition’s support is no higher than it was before the pandemic and the transition from former prime minister Shinzo Abe to Suga. The merger of opposition parties that created a larger Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) last year has done little to improve the CDP’s standing, as it has struggled with familiar challenges regarding cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the party’s relationship with organized labor. The LDP, and Suga, continue to benefit from the widespread perception that there is no alternative to LDP rule. The party is therefore highly likely to retain a sizable majority whenever a general election is held.

However, even as an LDP victory seems assured, the size of the victory could matter tremendously for Suga’s position as party leader and prime minister. With another party leadership election coming in September, Suga has to either lead the LDP to victory before the leadership election or demonstrate that he can win other elections between now and October, starting with by-elections on 25 April. The worst-case scenario for Suga is calling a snap election that results in the LDP – and the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition – losing more than a handful of seats. (The LDP’s historically large majority suggests picking up seats could be difficult.) Therefore, the political challenge for the prime minister is to surf public opinion, trying to time a snap election for just the right moment to maximize the LDP’s votes.

The problem is that despite the government’s rising approval ratings, the political situation may still be relatively unfavorable. The poor performance of the LDP-backed candidate in a gubernatorial race in Chiba prefecture, which borders Tokyo, on Sunday, 21 March suggests that the LDP’s and Suga’s position could be weaker than the polls suggest. The Chiba race might not be a proper bellwether for a national vote – the winner, Chiba City Mayor Toshihito Kumagai, was backed not only by the opposition parties but also some members of the ruling parties – but the LDP is alarmed that its candidate received less than a third of the votes that Kumagai received. Suga may only have a small window of opportunity. Therefore, LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura fueled snap election rumors when he suggested that assuming Suga gets a bump after meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington next month, he could call a snap election for as early as late April or early May.

However, even this opportunity could be illusory. It is unclear how significant a meeting with Biden will be compared with still-lingering concerns about Covid-19. For example, although the government lifted the state of emergency in Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures on Sunday, there are widespread fears that case numbers could rebound, particularly given the growing prevalence of new strains, such that Tokyo and its neighbors have continued to ask restaurants to close early and stop serving alcohol by 8pm through 21 April despite the end of the state of emergency. Polls suggest that a majority believes that the government lifted the state of emergency prematurely, suggesting that Suga’s support could slide again if case numbers spike. The slow increase in vaccinations – the daily rate of inoculations has increased but Japan is still limited by its need to import Pfizer doses from Europe until domestic production of AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines ramps up (and are approved for use) – means that the risk of a sharp spike in cases could remain elevated for months. The risk of another wave that dents the government’s support is a major reason why the prime minister remains circumspect about a snap election.

If Suga is unable to call an election timed to coincide with the by-elections or separately in May, the election timing may be difficult. Komeito has pushed back against a general election timed to coincide with Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections on 4 July. Komeito always views the Tokyo assembly vote as a high priority and fears that a general election would prevent it from using its organizational firepower to improve its chances in the local race. After 4 July, it could be difficult to call an election until after the Tokyo Olympics, which open on 23 July and close 8 August, and Paralympics, which open on 24 August and close on 5 September. At that point, however, the LDP will also have to hold its presidential vote, which could all but guarantee that a general election would be held in October, with 28 November as the absolute latest date an election could be held according to the Public Elections Act. Waiting until after the Olympics could also be risky in the event that holding the games, even without spectators from overseas, could lead to a new spike in Covid-19 cases.

The upshot is that for Suga, a snap election in April or May could be the worst option, except for all of the others. If he does not opt for a snap election next month, and if the 25 April by-elections are disappointing for the LDP, it is highly likely that the shadow race to succeed Suga will become more vigorous – and more open – than at present.

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