5 reasons why Japanese PM Abe is calling a snap election

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he will dissolve parliament's lower house on Thursday for a snap election. He's seeking a mandate to stick to his tough stance towards a volatile North Korea and rebalance the social security system.
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe speaking at a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo on Sept 25, 2017.
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe speaking at a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo on Sept 25, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on Monday (Sept 25) that he will dissolve the Lower House on Thursday for a snap election.

A poll for the more powerful Lower House, also known as the House of Representatives, is only due in December next year. There will be 465 seats up for contest - down from 475 seats after electoral boundaries in rural areas were redrawn to ensure voting parity.

Here are five reasons why Mr Abe is calling a snap election at this stage:

1. RECOVERING SUPPORT RATINGS

The ground is, again, sweetening for Mr Abe whose approval ratings once soared as high as 60 per cent. His support plunged to below 30 per cent in some polls - which some analysts have termed a political "death zone" - but has since recovered to about 50 per cent over an opposition in disarray and a craving for stability amid the North Korea threat.

This allows him the chance to regain political legitimacy, although a poll by local wire agency Kyodo News at the weekend found that almost two-thirds of Japanese voters oppose Mr Abe's call for a snap election.

2. MAIN OPPOSITION DEMOCRATIC PARTY IN DISARRAY

Since its founding in 1955, Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has consistently been in power except for brief spells when it lost its parliamentary majority. The most recent was between 2009 and 2012, when Japan was ruled by what was then known as the Minshuto, or the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Its botched rule at a time which coincided with a stagnant economy and the Fukushima nuclear accident, coupled with severe party infighting, led to it being ousted in 2012. It tried to rebrand itself last year, by merging with a smaller opposition party and renaming itself as the Minshinto, or Democratic Party (DP), but its approval ratings still remain stuck in the single- digits.

The largest national opposition, holding 88 out of 475 seats in the Lower House, was recently hit by an exodus of lawmakers and is said to be eyeing another merger, this time with the Liberal Party.

3. TO STOP THE RISE OF TOKYO GOVERNOR YURIKO KOIKE

Rumours have long been swirling that Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike - an erstwhile ally turned political rival - is eyeing a return to national politics.

The charismatic Ms Koike, who is seen as a potential future prime minister, was elected as Tokyo Governor last year having run against the LDP's preferred pick.

 
 
 

She led the local Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) group to romp to a stunning victory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly polls in July, by pledging to dismantle the "political black box" built by the LDP. That poll is often seen as a barometer for national trends.

By calling a snap election at this point, Mr Abe was said to have wanted to halt her momentum and not allow her the time to recruit candidates or come up with a political platform.

But Ms Koike, who stepped down as leader of Tomin First after the victory, on Monday (Sept 25) formally announced that she will launch and lead a new party called Kibou no To (Party of Hope).

4. A REFERENDUM ON TAX SPENDING

Here is the official LDP line: The snap election - which the opposition has labelled as "opportunistic" - is a necessary referendum on tax spending.

Mr Abe wants to shift the use of the increased revenue from a consumption tax hike to 10 per cent from 8 per cent in October 2019 to improve child rearing support as well as other social secuirty policies.

The government had previously intended to use the increase in revenue to repay state debts, having set a goal to bring the primary fiscal balance back to black by the fiscal year 2020.

This has been slammed in an editorial by the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun as being "raised out of the blue as a pretext" for a snap election, and that the policy had been "raised without any discussion".

"There is a tinge of deja vu here," the Asahi Shimbun said. The tax hike had first been scheduled for October 2015, then delayed until April 2017 and then until October 2019. Mr Abe had, in 2014, dissolved the Diet two years ahead of schedule as a referendum on the delayed tax hike.

5. NORTH KOREA

Ironically or not, the belligerent North Korea regime has given Mr Abe's popularity a filip, with the hawkish prime minister having long championed as his desire to revise the pacifist Constitution drawn up by the United States in 1947.

The LDP has said it was necessary for Japan to be able to acquire offensive weapons and first strike capabilities, in the name of defence.

The decision to call a snap poll comes amid high regional tensions after North Korea lobbed two intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Hokkaido into the Pacific Ocean, triggering national warning systems in 12 northern and north-eastern prefectures.