Abe's aides hint at early Japan election after support surge

Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe gestures as he gives an address at the start of the new parliament session at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo.
Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe gestures as he gives an address at the start of the new parliament session at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (Bloomberg) - Little more than two years after a sweeping general election victory, aides to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are hinting that a snap poll could come in the next few months.

Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has already fanned speculation - and opened up possible dates - by pushing its annual convention back two months to March from its usual slot at the start of the year. He's coming off a strong win in the upper house of parliament, his public support is at a two-year high and the opposition remains weak.

The atmosphere within the party is becoming one of "constant readiness for battle," close Abe adviser Hakubun Shimomura said on Fuji TV on Sunday (Oct 2), adding that a January election for the lower house of parliament was possible. Mr Toshihiro Nikai, LDP's No. 2, said last week that the party should always be prepared for an election, Kyodo News reported.

Mr Abe himself told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that he was not considering calling an election now, but wanted to make "the appropriate decision at any given time".

He has incentives to act quickly. The LDP is considering a rule change that would let him stay on for a third straight term as party president after a vote in 2018.

Locking in a majority early next year would put him in position to run Japan until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It would also give him a shot at revising Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, a long-burning ambition that has taken a backseat to reviving the world's third-biggest economy.

A convincing win for Mr Abe in any January election could put him track to become the longest-serving leader of Japan since World War II, bringing stability to the nation, as populist movements and uncertainty cast a shadow over the global economy.

He faces the challenges of reviving growth and spurring inflation in the short-term, as well as setting in motion policies to boost productivity and help counter the effects of a shrinking workforce in the aging nation.

The timing of a January poll could be auspicious. As well as solid approval ratings, he is seeking a further boost by making progress towards a peace treaty and the return of some islands disputed with Russia when President Vladimir Putin visits Japan in December.

Moreover, the main opposition Democratic Party has also yet to make inroads into LDP support despite electing a high-profile new leader last month.

"There's about a two-thirds chance" an election will be called in January, political analyst Hirotada Asakawa said by phone.

"The opposition is weak. There's no one to rival Abe in the LDP. Even if they lose a few seats, it's unlikely to lead to Abe's resignation."

Japan's prime minister has the right to call a general election at any time in the four years after the previous poll, meaning that Mr Abe need not go to the people until late 2018.

A survey published by Japan News Network on Monday found 41 per cent of respondents said the election ought to be held next year, while 36 per cent said it should wait until the following year.

Mr Abe ignored calls for a simultaneous upper and lower house election last July after opposition from coalition partner Komeito, whose grassroots support is a key source of electoral backing for the LDP.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said in an interview on Monday that his party must allow Mr Abe a free hand in election timing this time round.

Wrangling over a revision of constituency boundaries intended to reflect population changes could also play into electoral timing. Komeito's secretary-general Yoshihisa Inoue said last month that he expected an outline of the new voting blocs to be agreed by May next year.

Mr Abe said on Tuesday that calling an election under the existing electoral law wouldn't breach the constitution. Opposition leader Renho said on Wednesday any election held under the old boundaries would be "dishonorable".

While the progress of debate on legislation in parliament and his diplomatic agenda will still influence Mr Abe's decision, he does not need to give much notice - he called the December 2014 election only about a month in advance.

Despite his current high support rates, risks remain for the Abe administration, according to Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"The Democratic Party has had some success in attacking Defence Minister (Tomomi) Inada in parliament," he said.

"The chances of a new deal emerging from the meeting with Putin are slim. I think we will continue to hear conflicting stories for some time to come."