TOKYO -- Speculation that beleaguered Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would resort to dissolving the lower house in September for a snap election evaporated overnight.
"Considering the situation of coronavirus infections, we are not in a position to dissolve the Diet," Suga told reporters on Wednesday. He also denied any plans to "postpone" the presidential election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
With those comments, Suga abandoned his short-lived attempt to call a snap election to blindside political rivals and regain footing ahead of the LDP race, which he must win to keep his job.
The swift political drama was set in motion the previous night, when LDP lawmakers got a wind of Suga's plan.
If he dissolves the lower house after Sept. 12, when the coronavirus state of emergency ends, a general election will likely be held on Oct. 17, with campaigning starting on Oct. 5. This would inevitably force the LDP leadership race, scheduled for Sept. 29, to be postponed until after the election.
With an approval rating mired at its lowest level since he took office a year ago, Suga does not exactly enjoy a commanding advantage over rival Fumio Kishida, who is challenging Suga in the LDP race.
Pushing back the vote would give Suga sometime to regain his footing. Suga would announce a new LDP leadership team next week and delay the leadership race to focus on the general election, the speculation went.
But this scenario did not sit well with LDP members, who were already worried that the party would lose big in the general election under an unpopular prime minister. Fierce pushback ensued.
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who met with Suga Tuesday night, persuaded him against going through with the plan. Previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- for whom Suga served as right-hand man -- also conveyed his opposition to the idea.
Now Suga's control over the political calendar is at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic. Having given up his most powerful tool -- calling an election at the time of his choosing -- Suga only has next week's LDP leadership reshuffle as a way to regain support.
There is particular interest in who will replace kingmaker Nikai as the face of the LDP for the general election. Nikai has agreed to step aside as discontent over his long-tenure grew within the LDP.
Regulatory Reform Minister Taro Kono, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and young Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi have led media polls asking who would be the best choice for the post. Many are calling for a pick outside the party's top echelons, particularly a young person or a woman.
Ishiba has not made clear whether he will run for leadership. He met on Wednesday with Mikio Aoki, a retired LDP heavyweight with sway in the party's third-largest faction. Aoki has directed senior party officials in the upper house to support the prime minister in the race.
A new secretary-general can make a real difference to public support for a prime minister -- for better or worse.
In 2003, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi boosted his approval rating by 20 points after choosing Abe, then a relatively youthful 49 years old. Abe himself bolstered his standing in the polls with a switch in 2014, along with a cabinet reshuffle that included five women, before dissolving the lower house for an election two months later.
A poor choice can backfire, as happened in 1995 to Yohei Kono, who ended up losing momentum and choosing not to run for reelection as party leader. Opposition chiefs must be careful as well: Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama's choice for secretary-general in 2002, after a third successful run for leadership, was criticized as a reward to a pivotal political backer.
The backdrop of this LDP leadership race, with a general election looming, looks very different from last year's vote to replace the retiring Abe, when five of the LDP's seven factions backed Suga. With just over two weeks until campaigning is set to begin, six factions have yet to settle on a candidate.
"We shouldn't force a decision through sheer numbers," said Hiroshige Seko, LDP secretary-general for the upper house and a member of the party's largest faction.