TOKYO -- The lower house of the Japanese parliament is likely to be dissolved in September, with the first general election under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga following soon thereafter.
After a slow start, the government is accelerating its COVID-19 vaccination rollout ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which start in July. The government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are increasingly confident that the coronavirus pandemic will have dissipated to the point where it will be possible to hold an election in the fall.
Suga is expected to direct ministries to consider a major economic stimulus package as early as this summer, and the LDP will try to highlight to voters Suga's commitment to bolstering the economy and repairing the damage caused by the pandemic.
During a debate among party leaders on Wednesday, Suga was asked when he planned to dissolve the lower house. He emphasized that his priority would be to take firm measures to deal with COVID-19.
"I believe that's what the Japanese people want," he said. "I want to prioritize ensuring a thorough response to the coronavirus."
Suga's current term as president of the LDP expires at the end of September. The prime minister has previously said he will hold a general election before then, and looks to gauge the public's confidence in his pandemic response through the vote.
Some in the LDP have floated the idea that if opposition parties submit a motion of no confidence during the current session, the lower house of parliament should be dissolved immediately. But holding an election soon risks spreading the virus, and Suga will not take such action, sources have told Nikkei.
The pace of vaccination in Japan is gradually being stepped up. "If the election is held in the fall, we will be able to go into it with a state of mass immunity," a senior government official predicted.
The Suga cabinet's approval rating has slumped to record lows in most surveys, as the public has become frustrated with the prime minister's handling of COVID-19. The decision to delay dissolution of the lower house until shortly before its current term expires on Oct. 21 is partly based on the belief that the outbreak will be contained and the cabinet's approval rating will recover by the fall.
Suga said he hopes "to have everyone who wants a vaccine be done by October to November."
Still, Suga's plan hinges on coronavirus cases falling as the vaccine rollout progresses. He may be forced to rethink the timing of the election if the pace of vaccinations slows, or if the Olympic and Paralympic games -- which opposition parties are pushing to cancel -- triggers a new surge in infections.