The Coronavirus and Abe’s Election Dilemma


The COVID-19 crisis and the rescheduling of the Tokyo Olympics have complicated the outlook for a smooth transfer of power at the end of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō's tenure. Political journalist Fujino Kiyomitsu assesses the impact of the epidemic on the timing of the next general election and the selection of Abe's successor.

At a March 28 press conference, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō deflected questions about the timing of an early House of Representatives election, pronouncing it "the farthest thing from [his] mind" in the face of what could turn into a "protracted battle" against the coronavirus.

But the next general election is never very far from the minds of Japanese politicians. A month ago, it was widely assumed that Abe would exercise his prerogative to dissolve the lower house and call an election in the fall or winter of 2020—after the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games (then scheduled for July–August 2020) but early enough to ensure a smooth transition of power when he stepped down in the fall of 2021. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting one-year postponement of the games have drastically altered the calculus.

Timing is Everything

Abe's third and presumably final term as LDP president expires at the end of September 2021. The latest possible date for a House of Representatives election is the following October 21, when the current members' terms expire. Unless Abe exercises his power to dissolve the House of Representatives and call an early election, his successor will be obliged to lead the party into a general election less than a month after taking office—an extremely tight schedule. 

Before the coronavirus breakout and the postponement of the Olympics, most veterans in the LDP had been anticipating a snap election sometime between September and December 2020, while the triumph of the games—which Abe worked so hard to bring to Tokyo—was still fresh in voters' minds. Others speculated that Abe might pass the mantle in the middle of his term, a move that could strengthen his influence over the next administration. Either strategy would give Abe's successor maximum freedom to control the political agenda, including the timing of the next general election.

Now the basic premises of these calculations have collapsed. The current public health emergency and the postponement of the Olympics until the summer of 2021 have left Abe with less room to maneuver, particularly if he means to preside over the games.

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2020 June G7 Teleconference
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Fall or winter State visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping (previously postponed)
2021 July 22 Four-year term of Tokyo Metropolian Assembly ends
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September 30 Abe's third term as LDP president ends
October 21 Four-year term of House of Representatives ends

Dwindling Options

Some LDP veterans are still predicting a snap election before the end of 2020. One option that has been floated is to schedule the general election to coincide with the Tokyo Metropolitan gubernatorial election on July 5 (with the LDP-backed incumbent, Koike Yuriko, considered a shoo-in). "Knowing the prime minister, I wouldn't put it past him," commented a former cabinet member. Another possibility is sometime in the fall or winter, after the Diet convenes for an anticipated extraordinary session. The US election in November could give the LDP a boost if Americans reelect President Donald Trump, with whom Abe has cultivated a friendly relationship.

But a snap election in the shadow of the coronavirus seems improbable, and there is no guarantee that the epidemic itself—let alone its economic impact—will be in hand by the end of the year. "We can't call an election in the midst of the coronavirus effort," said one former cabinet minister. "The people would turn against us." Kōmeitō leader Yamaguchi Natsuo, representing the LDP's junior coalition partner, seconded that view at a March 24 press conference, calling on Abe to put management of the COVID-19 crisis first. "I want the person who has the power to dissolve the House of Representatives to give due thought to the crisis facing the world and the road to recovery ahead and focus his efforts on responding to the emergency." Under these circumstances, the outlook for a 2020 general election seems dim.

Looking ahead to 2021, the two obvious choices are January (at the start of the next ordinary session of the Diet) and late March (following passage of the fiscal 2021 budget)—assuming, of course, that the public-health crisis has passed by then, and life is back to normal. The question is whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks to Abe and his legacy.

Abe’s Uncertain Legacy

The LDP's decisive victory in the 2017 general election helped tighten Abe's grip on the ruling party and secure him a third term as LDP president in 2018. In 2019, Abe became Japan's longest-serving prime minister. At the same time, his public support and policy agenda have suffered from a string of scandals, including revelations of document tampering in connection with the Moritomo Gakuen affair, questions surrounding the prime minister's controversial cherry-blossom-viewing party, and a highly irregular waiver of mandatory retirement for the head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor's Office. For months the opposition parties kept Abe on the defensive in the Diet, grilling him day after day. Now more clouds have appeared on the horizon with the indictment of aides to former Justice Minister Kawai Katsuyuki and his wife Anri (both LDP Diet members) on charges of election law violations.

Thus far, Japanese voters have given the government high marks for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, but there is no guarantee that the bump in public support will continue into 2021.

Even under optimal conditions, the ruling bloc is expected to lose seats in the next general election in the face of electoral coordination among the opposition parties. Depending on the magnitude of those losses, Abe could be forced to step down before he has a chance to preside over the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.

The Olympics have taken on even greater importance for Abe given his failure to deliver on any of his three signature issues. The government has made no progress on either the Northern Territories dispute with Russia or the abduction dispute with North Korea, and the outlook for revising the Constitution under Abe's tenure is hopeless. "At this point, the prime minister must pin his hopes for a legacy on the success of the Olympics and containment of the coronavirus in Japan," a former cabinet minister commented. "I don't think we'll see another snap election under Abe." Another LDP veteran speculated that the prime minister might step down after the Olympics and leave dissolution of the lower house to the next LDP president.

Outlook Murky

The prospect of a general election on the heels of a change in party leadership could alter the dynamic of the race to succeed Abe as LDP president. The top candidate for the post is currently Kishida Fumio, former foreign minister and current head of the LDP Policy Research Council. But Kishida could face a challenge from other contenders, most notably former LDP Secretary General Ishiba Shigeru, who ran unsuccessfully against Abe in 2018.

Kishida enjoys support within the LDP mainstream but receives low marks in public communication. That lack of charisma is likely to work against him if the party election is held on the eve of a general election, with Diet seats hanging in the balance. Ishiba, a frequent critic of Abe and his policies, is a bit of a pariah among mainstream LDP Diet members, but he has strong support in the regions, and in public opinion surveys he consistently outpolls Kishida as a suitable candidate for prime minister. The concern among LDP leaders is that Ishiba will draw enough support from party members to throw the final outcome into doubt.

Under ordinary circumstances, campaigning for the 2021 LDP leadership election would begin around the fall of this year, with candidates touring the regions to drum up support among local party members. Whether that will happen remains to be seen. If stay-at-home advisories remain in place, such activity may have to be curtailed. The doubts and uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have spilled over into the political sphere, adding a murky opacity to the byzantine complexity of Japanese party politics. 

(Originally Published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō at a press conference on March 28, 2020. © Jiji.)

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