Desperate Japanese prime minister has few options in bid to save his job

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday.

Hoping to be reelected as Liberal Democratic Party president, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had once considered a hard-nosed tactic. He sought to regain his intraparty power by postponing the presidential election through the dissolution of the House of Representatives. This only led to backlash from within the LDP.

Suga has now shifted focus to carefully examine the possibility of regaining power by shaking up the LDP executive lineup.

“Let me be clear,” Suga told reporters Wednesday when asked about the possibility of a lower house dissolution. “We are placing priority on novel coronavirus control and are not in a situation to do so.”

Privately, a key Cabinet minister interpreted Suga’s real intentions as “keeping an eye on the situation, while leaving open a small possibility of dissolution.”

“The prime minister means that he doesn’t have dissolution in mind at this moment,” this Cabinet member said. “Things change from moment to moment, and you never know what will happen.”

Suga initially intended to dissolve the lower house after the Tokyo Paralympics end Sunday. Dissolution would force the postponement of the LDP presidential election set for Sept 29, with campaigning scheduled to get underway from Sept. 17. Aiming to come out victorious in the general election for the lower house, Suga hoped that would help him weather the LDP race.

With coronavirus infections showing no signs of abating, however, it is difficult to dissolve the lower house in the first half of this month.

After the candidate Suga backed was soundly defeated in last month’s mayoral election in Yokohama, Suga’s constituency, many party members began distancing themselves from Suga.

Whispers within the party have been saying that Suga is losing ground to the party’s former Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, who is also seeking the LDP presidency.

Under the circumstances, Suga began taking into consideration the words of a close colleague, Hiroshi Moriyama, chairman of the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee. He started considering two options: not dissolving the lower house so that the general election will be held Oct. 17 in accordance with the expiration of the lawmakers’ terms; or dissolving the lower house in mid-September and postponing the LDP presidential election.

To take the first option, Suga must win the presidential election first. This had caused the prime minister to suddenly lean toward the dissolution option. But opposition to dissolution is strong within the LDP, leaving little room for the prime minister to exercise his right to dissolve the lower house.

Some mid-ranking and junior LDP lawmakers who are reluctant to have Suga serve as the face of the party in the lower house election, at one point considered demanding a general meeting of Diet members from both houses to call for Suga’s dismissal.

Preceding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was said to have told Suga on Tuesday that he opposed dissolution for fear of stirring up confusion within the LDP. Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi also directly urged Suga to reconsider, saying postponement of the presidential election through a lower house dissolution would be an act of self-destruction.

Many LDP members view a Cabinet-approved election in accordance with the expiration of lower house members’ terms as the only option.

“The prime minister clearly stating that now is not the time for dissolution is a telling remark,” said a former Cabinet member.

A source close to Suga said, “He has no choice but to change the mood for the two elections by making bold shakeups of the LDP leadership.”