As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga prepares for the start of an extraordinary state parliament session due to open on Monday, he also faces the growing question of when he will schedule an election.
Suga's term as President of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ends next September and the term of the House of Commons lawmakers expires the following month, leaving Suga little room to devise a strategy to dissolve the House of Commons.
Holding an election at the right moment has always been a difficult task for the prime ministers. For Suga, who was appointed to the role just a month ago, this is an important test of his astuteness as a politician and, depending on the outcome, could encourage or weaken his standing in the ruling party.
Fueled by optimism and high expectations for the new administration reflected in early polls, political bystanders in Nagatacho, the nation's political hub, had expected Suga to pull the trigger in the early days of his administration. A poll by Kyodo News, carried out shortly after he took office in mid-September, found an approval rating for his cabinet of 66.4% and a disapproval of only 16.2%.
But Suga himself seemed to obliterate the prospect of an early election in the House of Commons.
"I want to get some work done as I've just taken on the role of LDP president," Suga said at a press conference immediately after his victory in the party's leadership contest, adding that he also needs to consider the pandemic situation.
If the Prime Minister decides to hold an election next year, he has very little flexibility as to when to do so, as several important events are already planned. The postponed Olympics are expected to take place in July and the Tokyo assembly elections are expected to take place around that time.
The Tokyo vote is crucial for Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, and it has been widely stated that Komeito refuses to hold general elections immediately before or after a local campaign, as he wants to focus his efforts on the latter.
If the summer of 2021 is not in the picture, there are only three feasible scenarios left: at the start of the diet session next year in January; immediately after the adoption of the budget for the budget year 2021 in spring or shortly before the end of the legislature's term of office in the lower house in autumn.
In addition to working with Komeito, Suga could also consider working with Nippon Ishin no Kai, a right-wing opposition party with whose leaders the prime minister has close working ties, said Jun Iio, professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Suga, the professor predicted, is unlikely to dissolve the House of Commons this year as it would help him hold power like a trump card for as long as possible in order to maintain his power.
While Suga may be tempted to call for an early vote if his cabinet's approval rating drops, the LDP has an overwhelming lead over other parties on all major approval polls.
In a poll by Kyodo News earlier this month, the LDP's approval rating was 45.8% – well ahead of the rating of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the largest opposition party, which approved just 6.4%.
Nippon Ishin, who had an approval rating of 4.2% in the Kyodo poll, is currently busy with the vember referendum on the Osaka metropolis plan. Party leader Ichiro Matsui said in September that he would prefer the general election to be held on the same day as the referendum to increase the turnout.
But the prime minister may have been deterred from taking such a step as Nippon Ishin and the LDP's Osaka chapter are divided on the issue. The government was unsure whether it supported the metropolitan proposal, and holding parliamentary elections on the same day could be seen as an implicit nod to the scheme.
Like most prime ministers, Suga was keen to see when he could vote. In order to maintain this uncertainty, it is useful for the Prime Minister to point out the possibility of an early election if he deems it necessary to mess things up within the party, Iio said.
"Suga is a confident person who doesn't think his government's popularity will decline as he believes he is doing his job (cutting cell phone bills and promoting digitization) and would dare to challenge anyone who does him wants to replace. " Said Iio. "It would be beneficial to retain the right to hold parliamentary elections to avoid the possibility of being ousted by faction dynamics (the LDP)."
Traditionally, Prime Ministers of the LDP are members of one of its factions in order to maintain their status and garner support. But Suga doesn't belong to any of them, so he doesn't have a solid base of support and is more prone to friction between gatherings.
The political parties have started preparations to nominate candidates for each constituency. The CDP, which this summer merged new lawmakers from the Democratic Party for the people, is trying to work with other opposition parties to support the same candidates. However, some members of the party are unwilling to continue working with the Japanese Communist Party.
Opposition parties' commitment to unified counterforce against Suga could collapse, Iio said, if Nippon Ishin suggests nationwide candidates to split the votes.
"Suga doesn't think he'd win an election without working on different fronts," he added.