TOKYO — Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he will dissolve the lower house of parliament on Thursday to call a snap election on Oct. 22, more than a year before required by law. It’s widely seen as a bid to reconsolidate his grip on power in the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party, increasing his chances of extending his premiership next year by winning a third three-year term as party leader. A look at why he’s doing it now, and what’s at stake:
Q: The four-year term for the more powerful 475-member lower house ends in December 2018. Why call an election now?
A: Several factors make the timing relatively good, and Abe has apparently concluded that the risks of waiting outweigh the risks of an election. His support rating, which plunged below 30 percent in the summer after a series of scandals and missteps, has rebounded to the 50 percent range. He has been helped by a three-month parliamentary recess, which means he hasn’t faced daily questioning about the scandals. He also reshuffled his Cabinet, moving out some unpopular figures including the former defense minister. Finally, the public supports his firm stance on security as the North Korean missile threat intensifies. Dissolving the lower house on the day it reconvenes has another advantage: It denies the opposition an opportunity to renew questioning him in public. The leading opposition party, the Democrats, is in even more disarray than usual after its leader resigned in late July. And a quick election deprives the new Hope Party, launched this week by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, time to organize and line up candidates. Yu Uchiyama, a University of Tokyo politics professor, says Abe is taking advantage of the unprepared opposition as he seeks to prolong his leadership.
Q: What are Abe’s prospects of winning the election, and then extending his leadership next year?
A: The ruling party is all but certain to retain a majority, but it could lose some seats and the two-thirds majority it holds with its coalition partner, the smaller Komei party. Still, a solid victory would bolster Abe’s chances of a third term as president of the LDP in the next leadership election in September 2018. “Mr. Abe simply wants to win. He wants to maintain a comfortable majority ahead of the party leadership election next year,” said political analyst Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. A third term seemed assured early this year, but the plunge in his popularity this summer chipped away at his once rock-solid position. A big-enough election win would help him keep at bay potential challengers, such as former Cabinet members Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba.
Q: What’s at stake?
A: If he wins another three-year term as party leader, he could continue as prime minister through the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. That would give him more time to pursue his longtime goal of revising Japan’s postwar, U.S.-drafted pacifist Constitution, a contentious issue that requires approval by two-thirds of parliament and a public referendum. The election, if it follows previous ones, will largely focus on the economy. Abe on Monday pledged more government spending on education and child care by using part of the revenue from a planned 2019 consumption tax hike from the current 8 percent to 10 percent. Abe said he is seeking a mandate for the proposal, and for his defense policy toward North Korea’s escalating missile and nuclear threat, saying the situation is tantamount to a national crisis. He is also expected to propose bolstering missile defense against the North. Experts say he may keep constitutional revision under the carpet during the campaign to avoid shooing away voters, and only start pushing it after the election.
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