As Japan’s next prime minister, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is to face an early, and difficult, leadership decision: whether to call a general election before his honeymoon with voters fades or wait and risk seeing ratings slide.
The decision would affect Suga’s chances of holding office beyond the remainder of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s term, which expires next year.
A successful early election might also help him gain momentum to push his agenda, including deregulation and smashing bureaucratic silos.
Photo: Kyodo via Reuters
Suga won the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) leadership poll on Monday, and the party’s parliamentary majority means he is virtually guaranteed to replace Abe, who is resigning after nearly eight years as prime minister because of illness.
Suga on Monday acknowledged that the question of timing for a lower house election was a tough call amid worries about COVID-19 and a slumping economy.
A poll for the powerful chamber must be held by late October next year.
Twelve years ago, then-Japanese prime minister Taro Aso was expected to call a snap election soon after taking office while his ratings were relatively high. He waited, his popularity declined and when he called an election in 2009, the LDP lost power for three years.
The memory of that trauma lingers, although the LDP’s opposition is far weaker now.
“There’s only a year left, so the timing of when to dissolve the lower house is a vexing problem,” Suga told a news conference on Monday after the LDP vote.
Speculation has swirled that Suga would call a lower house poll for as early as next month.
Aso, now minister of finance, yesterday said that an early election should be considered, because the Tokyo Olympics would be held next year.
Suga on Monday sounded cautious on the idea, saying that his priorities were to end the COVID-19 outbreak and revive the economy.
A robust LDP election performance would boost Suga’s chances of winning a full three-year term next year.
Long seen as more of a backroom operator than a top leader, Suga’s ratings have jumped since he began running for the LDP post.
Some party insiders fear that his rise could be short-lived.
“Mr Suga is good at making deals, but he’s not especially talented at answering questions in parliament,” said one LDP senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Scenarios floated for an early election include Oct. 25, Nov. 1 and Dec. 6, which is Suga’s birthday.
An early poll would also diminish chances the LDP would lose seats because the newly unified opposition would have less time to prepare.
“Objectively, it is certain that sooner is better for the LDP,” independent political analyst Atsuo Ito said.
Abe’s success in leading the LDP to big wins in six national elections — aided by a weak opposition and low turnout — was key to his tenure as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. Before Abe, Japan suffered a succession of short-lived leaders.
The LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, is against an early election, and opinion polls show the public is more focused on steps to fight COVID-19 and reboot the economy than going to the polls.
Voter surveys measuring Suga’s popularity after he takes office following today’s parliamentary vote could guide the decision.
“It’s true calls in the LDP for an early election are growing, but Suga is cautious,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor at Nihon University, a private research university in Tokyo. “We have to see the opinion polls.”
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