By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - As Japan's next prime minister, Yoshihide Suga will face an early, and difficult, leadership decision: whether to call an general election before his honeymoon with voters fades or wait and risk seeing ratings slide.
The decision will affect Suga's chances of holding office beyond the remainder of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's term, which expires next year. A successful early election may also help him gain momentum to push his agenda, including deregulation and smashing bureaucratic silos.
Suga won a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership poll on Monday, and the party's parliamentary majority means he is virtually guaranteed to replace Abe, who is resigning after nearly eight years as prime minister because of illness.
Suga acknowledged on Monday that the question of timing for a lower house election was a tough call amid worries about the coronavirus and a slumping economy. A poll for the powerful chamber must be held by late October 2021.
A dozen years ago, Taro Aso was expected to call a snap election soon after taking office as premier, while his ratings were relatively high. He waited, his popularity declined and when he called an election in 2009, the LDP lost power for three years.
The memory of that trauma lingers, although the LDP's opposition is far weaker now.
"There's only a year left, so the timing of when to dissolve the lower house is a vexing problem," Suga told a news conference after a landslide victory in the party vote.
Speculation has swirled that Suga would call a lower house poll for as early as next month. Aso, now finance minister, said on Tuesday an early election should be considered because the Olympic Games will be held in Japan next year.
On Monday, Suga sounded cautious, saying his priorities were to end the coronavirus outbreak and revive the economy.
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A robust LDP election performance would boost Suga's chances of winning a full three-year term next year.
Long seen as more of a backroom operator than a top leader, Suga's ratings have jumped since he began running for the LDP post. Some party insiders fear that rise could be short-lived.
"Mr. Suga is good at making deals, but he's not especially talented at answering questions in parliament," said one LDP senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Scenarios floated for an early election include Oct. 25, Nov. 1 and Dec. 6, which is Suga's birthday.
An early poll would also diminish chances the LDP would lose seats because the newly unified opposition would have less time to prepare.
"Objectively, it is certain that sooner is better for the LDP," said independent political analyst Atsuo Ito.
Abe's success in leading the LDP to big wins in six national elections - aided by a weak opposition and low turnout - was key to his tenure as Japan's longest-serving prime minister. Before Abe, Japan suffered a succession of short-lived leaders.
The LDP's junior coalition partner, the Komeito party, is against an early election, and opinion polls show the public is more focused on steps to fight COVID-19 and reboot the economy than going to the polls.
Voter surveys measuring Suga's popularity after he takes office on Wednesday could guide the decision.
"It's true calls in the LDP for an early election are growing but Suga is cautious," said Tomoaki Iwai, a Nihon University professor. "We have to see the opinion polls."
(Additional reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto. Editing by Gerry Doyle)