Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, says he doesn't plan to be an interim leader just serving out the balance of his predecessor Shinzo Abe's term as ruling party leader, but whether Suga can stay in power beyond September 2021 is likely to depend on whether he calls an election at the right time.
The 71-year-old, who took office Wednesday after serving as Abe's chief Cabinet secretary for nearly eight years, has pledged to do his utmost to contain the coronavirus pandemic and deal with its economic fallout. Given the magnitude of these issues, he may find it difficult to add any other items to his priority list anytime soon.
Suga has called for establishing a digital agency for facilitating the digitalization of government functions, consolidating local banks and driving mobile phone bills cheaper, among items on his relatively brief new-policy agenda.
For the most part, he is carrying on Abe's policies and tackling long-standing challenges Abe left behind, including improving fiscal health, amending the Constitution and facilitating deregulation. None of them is a simple issue that can be resolved within a year, the time left in Abe's three-year tenure as Liberal Democratic Party leader through September next year.
Political pundits say that for Suga to win a new, full term as LDP president -- and hence prime minister -- next year, he must carefully time the dissolution of the House of Representatives for a snap election before the current terms of lower house members expire in October next year. A poll could come as early as this October, they say.
While he was backed by most factions within the party in the leadership election, Suga, who does not belong to a faction himself, is not in an infallible position, said Hitoshi Komiya, a professor of modern Japanese political history at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. It is unclear how many of the factions Suga can really count on, he said.
"People are drawn when one has power, but whether they will continue to offer support is unclear," Komiya said. "If he wins (the election), then everyone will hail Suga, giving him power."
Given that the main opposition force, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, was just formed Tuesday and that the support rate for a new government is usually high at the start, the best timing for a snap election may be next month, said Yu Uchiyama, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo.
Such a scenario was suggested last week by Taro Kono, who became minister for administrative reform in the Suga Cabinet.
Kono said he expects an early general election in October, noting there is a "very small window" for it, given there is a U.S. presidential election in November and that Japan needs to be ready for the Tokyo Olympics in summer next year.
A number of other LDP lawmakers have similarly suggested an early general election and some have even begun preparing for campaigning back home.
When asked about the possibility at his first press conference after becoming premier, Suga did not completely rule out the option.
"The House of Representatives is going to be dissolved for an election within a year, so I will be looking at the time limit and will give consideration," he said.
Suga also stressed his focus is on the economy, saying, "Reviving the economy continues to be a top-priority issue for the government."
The big question is how Suga will revitalize the world's third-largest economy.
Increased spending on the coronavirus response may deepen the country's fiscal woes, at a time when its public debt has surged to a level equivalent to over 200 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, mainly due to snowballing social security costs and health care spending for the rapidly aging population.
The Diet has already passed two extra budgets totaling about 58 trillion yen ($550 billion) for fiscal 2020 to finance economic stimulus steps in the fight against the pandemic.
Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at Nomura Research Institute, said there are some worries that fiscal spending could grow further under Suga as he has vowed to secure employment and ensure a reliable social security system.
In contrast, Suga made no reference to the country's fiscal consolidation in his campaign pledges, signifying its low priority for him and that government efforts to restore fiscal health might fall behind, said Kiuchi, a former policymaker of the Bank of Japan.
The new premier's approach looks "a bit leftist" and tilted toward big government, he said.
Inbound tourism, a pillar of Abe's growth strategy for revitalizing regional economies, an area Suga has pushed, is also expected to remain stagnant due to tight international travel restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
The number of foreign visitors to Japan had been steadily rising until 2019 when some 31.88 million people came from overseas, logging a record high for the seventh straight year, but the figure is unlikely to reach even 10 million people in 2020.
"In addition to taking coronavirus response, the (Suga) administration will be tasked with strengthening its inbound tourism strategies or finding what could become a pillar of its growth strategy in place of them," said Hideo Kumano, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.