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Interview

Japan's kingmaker quells rumors of early snap election

Ruling party's No. 2 supports 'bold' stimulus if needed amid coronavirus slump

Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai speaks to Nikkei in an interview. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is unlikely to call a snap election this year to solidify his political position, Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, indicated to Nikkei.

"There are serious issues before us right now. The prime minister has made the right decision to focus on resolving those problems," Nikai said in an interview in which he expressed support for "bold" stimulus if necessary to shore up the economy.

Nikai -- who became the LDP's longest-serving secretary-general this month, with more than four years in the role -- is the party's biggest political heavyweight. His political power and instincts were on display with his early endorsement of Suga after Shinzo Abe's abrupt resignation last month, which all but guaranteed the ascent of a candidate who had then been considered a dark horse.

Since Suga took office, there has been much talk about whether he will dissolve the lower house of parliament for a snap election, a move that can put a leader on firmer political footing by providing a clear mandate from the public. An election must take place by October of next year, when the terms of lower house members are set to end.

Suga's administration enjoys a strong approval rating -- 74% in a Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll, the third-highest ever for a new cabinet -- and some in the Suga government and the LDP say the new prime minister should call an election soon to take advantage of this good will. But he could risk drawing flak if he does so while the coronavirus remains a threat.

Nikai said dissolving the lower house is "not something that should be decided lightly by following opinion polls and rumors."

It is meant to be used "when there is a serious issue for which we need to ask the public about how to proceed," he said. "It should not be talked about casually."

Suga said on Sept. 14, shortly before becoming prime minister, that it would be "quite difficult" to hold lower house elections until experts say that the outbreak has completely subsided. Two days later, after taking office, he said he would concentrate on reviving the economy.

Suga's term as LDP leader expires at the end of September 2021, and Nikai made clear that he will support the new prime minister again should he choose to run for reelection. "The next election will be the same as the last one," Nikai said. "The person who won this election will of course win the next one, 100%."

Asked about stimulus to soften the economic blow from the coronavirus, Nikai said the second supplementary budget for fiscal 2020, approved in June, offered sufficient support to both small and large businesses. But "if more is needed, we should take bold action," he said.

The timing of a potential third supplemental budget "is up to Prime Minister Suga, but if we hurry, we can do it at the next Diet session" convening in late October, he said, referring to parliament.

Nikai touched on support for automakers, airlines and other industries whose earnings have been hit particularly hard by a protracted coronavirus-induced slump. The government will seek input from industry organizations and small and midsize enterprises and "take effective action to support the overall economy," he said.

But the question of whether specific measures such as consolidation of international flights or a realignment in the auto industry are needed "should be left to the industries," Nikai argued.

"The party should consider what kind of support would be appropriate after the industries make their decisions," he said.

Click here to see the Japanese version of the article.

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