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Politics

Japan election set for fall as COVID and Olympics come first

Suga's performance to impact Biden's Indo-Pacific strategies

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has signaled that a no-confidence motion by the opposition would trigger a snap election. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga looks likely to wait until autumn to call an election as the coronavirus outbreak rages on and the opposition gives up on a no-confidence vote that could have forced his hand.

With an election off the table, Suga plans to use the next several months to advance vaccinations to bring coronavirus infections under control and host a successful Olympics.

But while the prime minister has gained some breathing room, it is not from a position of strength. His sagging public support has raised concern among the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.  

Suga's domestic success or failure also has major implications for U.S. President Joe Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy as he counts on collaboration with the Quad nations of Japan, India and Australia to advance regional stability.

Biden has invested his political capital in trying to boost Suga's standing at home, inviting the Japanese leader to the White House ahead of any other foreign leader, and dispatching his secretary of state and defense minister to Japan for their first overseas trips.

Suga has been reluctant to dissolve the Diet's lower house for an early general election amid the pandemic but has signaled that a no-confidence motion against his cabinet could spur him to do so.

"I don't think we can hold a general election under the current circumstances," Yukio Edano, head of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, told reporters Monday, referring to the fourth wave of coronavirus infections hitting the country.

Senior officials from Suga's LDP "have made clear that the lower house will be dissolved if we submit" a no-confidence motion, "so we can't," Edano said.

Submitting a no-confidence motion at the end of the regular Diet session, which ends on June 16 this year, had been an annual ritual of opposition lawmakers until the pandemic. The lower house must be dissolved before its term expires on Oct. 21.

New daily COVID-19 cases topped 7,000 for the first time in four months Saturday. The government just last week extended an emergency declaration in Tokyo and other prefectures through the end of May.

The vaccine is the prime minister's "trump card" not only against the virus, but also for keeping a stable grip on power. Thus the progress of the vaccination campaign will likely determine the timing.

"Vaccines are the key to fighting the ongoing infections," Suga told reporters Friday, pledging to increase vaccinations to 1 million shots per day. The government looks to have all of the country's 36 million older adults inoculated by the end of July and expand vaccinations earlier than planned to other segments of the public, including people with underlying conditions.

Public support for his cabinet has maintained an inverse trajectory against infection numbers. An NHK poll conducted between Friday and Sunday showed the cabinet's approval rating slumping 9 points from the previous month's survey to a new low of 35%.

The numbers are not encouraging for the Biden administration. "The Obama administration, which many of the Biden folks served in, saw what happened when Japan had political uncertainty and a new prime minister every year, and I’m sure they don’t want to go back to that," Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a press conference call in March.

"They want and need a partner in Japan, and Suga is the guy in the seat now and I think they want to give him as much space as possible."

Suga has told people around him that the longer he waits, the more favorable the political climate will become for holding an election.

A senior Japanese government official also said "Vaccinations will reduce the number of people who get seriously ill, freeing up hospital capacity."

But many uncertainties remain, including the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, which are currently scheduled to kick off from July 23. 

Suga continues to assert that he wants to hold the games as planned, but the decision is ultimately up to the International Olympic Committee, which could be swayed if Japan fails to bring the outbreak under control.

A cancelation of the games would bring up the possibility of a snap election in the summer. 

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