Most political leaders with an approval rating above 70 per cent would be hungry for an election to turn their popularity into a mandate. But for Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s new prime minister, things are not that simple.
Although the lower house of Japan’s Diet has only a year left to run, and many in the ruling Liberal Democratic party are eager for a dissolution, Mr Suga is proving reluctant to call an early election.
His intention, he has said repeatedly, is to “work for the public” — suggesting that Mr Suga regards governance rather than electoral politics as his best route to a durable and effective administration.
“I now think there’s very little chance of a dissolution this year,” said Takao Toshikawa, editor of the political newsletter Tokyo Insideline. “An election in January is possible but September next year is looking more likely.”
Mr Suga, who took over this month after Shinzo Abe stepped down because of ill health, is showing an appetite to take on difficult reforms and then run on his record. One advantage of that approach is to keep party discipline tight as backbenchers worry about their electoral prospects.
True to his reputation as a detail-oriented politician who cares mostly for domestic policy, Mr Suga has defined four specific areas where he wants quick victories: a new agency for digital policy, cuts to mobile phone charges, coverage of fertility treatment on public health insurance as a way to increase the birth rate and a shake-up of Japan’s bureaucracy.
Several of those policies could run afoul of powerful vested interests. For example, a move to allow telemedicine beyond the Covid-19 crisis would upset Japan’s doctors, who do not want outsiders challenging their dominance in local areas, while any move on the radio spectrum means tangling with local broadcasters.
But neither digital policy nor mobile phone charges require any public spending, Mr Toshikawa pointed out, making it possible for Mr Suga to move quickly.
High monthly bills from Japan’s three large mobile operators have long been a bugbear for Mr Suga, who has called for cuts of as much as 40 per cent. But it is still not clear how he will go about bringing them down.
The new prime minister’s election has hit shares in NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and SoftBank Corp. “We will take the government request seriously and consider how to respond,” Makoto Takahashi, KDDI’s president, said last week, signalling that mobile companies may offer voluntary price cuts to try and head off a change in regulation.
But for LDP members of parliament in vulnerable seats, any delay is a risk, since the government’s approval ratings will probably fall after Mr Suga’s honeymoon ends.
“I think almost all of the LDP’s younger members want an election soon,” Hakubun Shimomura, party policy chief, said recently.
Keeping those younger politicians on their toes may suit Mr Suga, however, while an election of choice during Covid-19 risks seeming self-serving.
“It would be hard to explain why we called an election during such a challenging period,” said Seiko Noda, deputy to the LDP’s secretary-general.
Mr Suga’s electoral calculations may also reflect a view that Japan’s political opposition — which is finally getting itself into some kind of order after eight years in the minority — will still be too weak to challenge effectively in a year’s time.
After a merger this month, the main opposition force is clearly the Constitutional Democratic party, which now has more than 100 members of the lower house. Under the leadership of Yukio Edano, it has emerged as an explicitly leftwing party, promising redistribution and a strong government.
“In the past, people said that the basic stance of Japan’s opposition was ambiguous,” said Mr Edano. “That has now changed.” In an effort to reassure voters, Mr Edano has also committed the CDP to support the US-Japan alliance.
But Mr Edano must still contend with a small, residual centrist party and the hard-left Communist party, which runs candidates and splits the opposition vote in first-past-the-post constituencies. That makes it hard for the CDP to win a majority against the LDP and its allies even in favourable circumstances.
“It’s unfortunate, but at present there’s close to a zero chance of Japan’s opposition being able to form an administration,” said Mr Toshikawa.