TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will resign this month, throwing wide open the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election -- a crucial race that could set the tone for an upcoming lower house campaign.
In light of the Suga cabinet's slumping approval rating -- down to a low of 34% in the latest Nikkei poll -- there have been widespread worries in the party that it would lose the lower house election without a change of prime minister.
Suga had been planning to reshuffle party executives such as Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai next Monday, and go into the party and general elections with fresh faces. Instead, Suga on Friday told party executives that he was withdrawing the reshuffle plan and would not run in the presidential election, stressing he wants to concentrate on fighting COVID-19.
"A huge amount of energy is needed when considering COVID measures and the election campaign," he told reporters. "It is difficult to manage both."
Suga's decision not to run means he will quit only about a year after he took over for Shinzo Abe last September, who resigned citing ill health.
The LDP plans to start its presidential campaign on Sept. 17 and vote on Sept. 29. That would install a new leader to face the lower house election expected in October or November.
One contender is Fumio Kishida, a former LDP policy chief who has announced that he will run. Ex-Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi is also reportedly eager to enter the fray.
Nikkei learned on Friday that Regulatory Reform Minister Taro Kono has decided to run, and is taking action to secure the endorsement of 20 LDP lawmakers. Kono on Friday afternoon met Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso to inform him of his plans; Kono belongs to an LDP faction chaired by Aso.
Kono is popular in opinion polls on the next party president, as is former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba.
In response to Suga's announcement, Ishiba said he is thinking about running. "It is a whole new development," he told reporters. "I want to make a decision at the right time while consulting with my comrades about what should be done for Japan and the LDP."
As for the general election timing, there are a couple of possible scenarios.
One plan is to hold an election before Oct. 21, when the terms for current lower house lawmakers ends. This would require holding the vote no later than Oct. 17.
Another option is to have Suga's replacement hold an extraordinary Diet session in October and dissolve the parliament. This would extend the timeline until after the current terms, pushing the latest possible date back to Nov. 28 under the election law.
There had been some talk of Suga dissolving parliament himself in mid-September, but he ruled that out, saying he was "not in a situation where the parliament could be dissolved."
Suga had formed his government last September with the support of five LDP factions. But this time, the expectation was that he would have the backing of only Nikai's faction and one other in the presidential election, creating an uphill battle to keep his job.
Except for two brief periods, the LDP has run Japan since it was founded in 1955. The two times it fell from voters' favor came after the country suffered economic turmoil. The first occasion came in 1993 as the country was picking up the pieces from the collapse of its bubble economy in 1990. The party regained power the following year and held it until 2009, when the world was still in the throes of the 2008 financial crisis.
Now Japan is facing headwinds again as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc with certain segments of its economy.
In Tokyo, stock futures rose sharply after the news of Suga's intention broke. The blue-chip Nikkei Stock Average also jumped, at one point rising over 500 points, or 1.8%, to its highest intra-day level in over two months.