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Suga to forgo January snap election as COVID third wave rages

Japan's prime minister expected to dissolve lower house in summer or later

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged that he would prioritize coronavirus countermeasures when he succeeded Shinzo Abe in September. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to forgo calling an early election for the lower house of parliament as the country faces a third wave of COVID-19 infections, Nikkei has learned.

There had been speculation that Suga would dissolve the House of Representatives at the beginning of the regular session of the Diet, which convenes in January next year. Instead, he will seek to do so next summer or later.

Until then, his administration will focus on coronavirus countermeasures and will work on budget plans which are indispensable for economic stimulus measures.

Suga is also thought to want to secure policy achievements to present to the public, such as the establishment of a digital agency to take administrative paperwork online. The administration will likely pressure mobile phone carriers to further cut service fees, securing tangible changes ahead of the election. 

The prime minister will hold a news conference around the Dec. 5 closure of the current parliament session to inform the nation that he will prioritize COVID-19 countermeasures and rebuilding the economy.

Early dissolution of the chamber had been speculated inside the ruling parties after Suga took office as prime minister in September, considering his cabinet has maintained solid approval ratings, with a mark as high as 63% as of October.

The current lower house term will expire on Oct. 21, 2021, and a general election has to take place before then. The speculation came as the current ruling parties -- Suga's Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito -- will be able to secure more seats through an early election while they are still popular.

A landslide victory would mean Suga can strengthen his political power and accelerate the realization of key policies. Multiple sources told Nikkei that he is now taking a cautious approach to a dissolution as Japan is experiencing an explosion of COVID-19 infection cases for a third time.

Suga had pledged in September that he would prioritize virus countermeasures and told his party recently that he would not dissolve the lower house within this year. Next year's ordinary Diet session is expected to start in mid-January, a couple of weeks earlier than usual. If Suga were to go for a dissolution in January, it would take about one month, including campaigning, for the election to be held. Thus, there is a risk of possible "political vacuum" that could be criticized by voters amid the third wave of infections.

If Suga chooses not to dissolve the lower house in January, only three opportunities would remain for him to do so by October. The earliest would be the end of the ordinary Diet session, which is usually sometime in June. Some policymakers in the ruling parties say the dissolution should come after the Olympic and Paralympic Games conclude in September in the hope that voters would reward the government's successful handling of the events postponed from last year due to the pandemic.

Suga, who became Japan's leader following the sudden resignation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is due to serve as president of the LDP until next September, filling out the remainder of Abe's final three-year term. If he can lead the coalition to a general election victory prior to the next LDP presidential election that same month, the party ballot would end up being a mere vote of confidence for Suga.

The third chance would come just before Oct. 21 when the current House of Representatives term expires. In that case, the LDP presidential election would come before the general election and raise awareness about the party, thus possibly contributing to more votes for it.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise again in Japan, and the death toll is approaching that of the "first wave" that hit in the spring. A total of 29 deaths were confirmed on Thursday, second only to the record 31 recorded on May 2.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Friday announced 570 new daily infections in Japan's capital, a new record surpassing the 539 on Nov. 21. The number of seriously ill patients in Tokyo also increased by one, bringing the total to 61, the highest number since the lifting of a state of emergency in May.

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