2021 Japan snap election: it’s in the wind

Roam the halls of Nagatacho, Japan’s Capitol Hill, and you will most certainly hear people trading the rumor of the day, “When’s the snap election going to be?!”

Coming on 7 months into the Suga administration, we are quickly approaching the inevitable conclusion of an election year. While the Prime Minister does not have to call a snap election, most leaders in Japan’s modern history have decided to use the not-so secret weapon of, “Surprise, election!”

In fact, the last time the Japan House of Representatives had a non-snap election was 1976. So, either Suga is going to bring us back to the days of disco fever, or he’s going to pull the ripcord soon.

There are several signs that point to this happening sooner rather than later. One thing is certain, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has been raring for a snap election. My discussions with colleagues inside the outer moat generally include some grumbling about why PM Suga didn’t call a snap election last Autumn, when his leadership was in its infancy, approval ratings were high, and thus the timing was right. Except, what about the pandemic?

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused lots of new realities for my personal favorite Japanese performance art: the election campaign. Most of Japan’s 465 House of Representatives are elected by rural districts, which have been largely safe from the health hazard of coronavirus. Unfortunately for politicians, they have found that their risk-averse electorate is less than thrilled with the prospect of their elected representatives ferrying back and forth between home base and Tokyo, given the threat of spreading infection. Japanese election campaign strategy is an overwhelmingly analog affair, and internet campaigning and social media political activity is still not at the same level as other major democratic nations. As such, a pandemic is not an ideal situation for holding an election in Japan.

“Okay, Mr. Politics Nerd, so when’s that election?”

Option 1: May 23

This one would be a surprise for everyone, several veteran politicians included. However, it would be rolling the dice as the coronavirus daily infection numbers are on the rise in Tokyo, Osaka, and other metropolitan areas, so calling a snap election in the near term will surely trigger some backlash. That said, this date has gathered enough interest to where it is making tabloid headlines, so it cannot be completely discounted.

Option 2: late June / early July

With the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games set to open on July 23, a snap election would not logically happen too close to the opening ceremony. One date of note is July 4, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. This date is crucial for Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, her Tokyoites First Party, and will surely be a referendum on her administration’s stringent coronavirus mitigation policies. Last year Gov. Koike proved popular among voters, so it will be interesting to see how Tokyoites First fares this year, ironically on the same date as US Independence Day. Fireworks sold separately.

Option 3: September

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics closing on August 8, and the Paralympics taking place from August 24 to September 5, that leaves sometime in September as the other main option for having a snap election. Recently, Kyodo News reported that PM Suga stated he could indeed call a snap election before his term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends on September 30.

So, when will PM Suga make the big decision? This one is a bit easier to read. On April 25, there are supplementary elections for the House of Councilors in Nagano and Hiroshima, and for the House of Representatives in Hokkaido. This will give PM Suga and his Liberal Democratic Party a basic idea of where their popularity stands. Following this logic, a good outcome equals a sooner snap election, and a less favorable outcome means it will be pushed out. Or is it the other way around?


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