He will decide on snap election after US trip, says Japan PM Shinzo Abe

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to return to Japan on Sept 22. PHOTO: EPA

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he will decide on calling a snap election after he returns from a trip to the United States.

Mr Abe was responding to questions from reporters at Haneda airport before he took off for meetings at the United Nations in New York. He is scheduled to return to Japan on Sept 22.

Local media reported on Sunday that Mr Abe was considering holding an election as early as next month, a move that would allow him to seize on opposition disarray and growing support for his handling of the North Korea crisis.

NHK said that Mr Abe will make a decision after talks with senior Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and government officials. A vote is most likely to be held on Oct 29, the Sankei newspaper reported.

An NHK poll last week showed that support for Mr Abe's ruling coalition climbed 5 points to 44 per cent from a month earlier, with approval exceeding disapproval for the first time in three months.

A snap election may speed up the formation of a new national political party linked to Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to face Mr Abe's LDP, according to NHK, citing comments by lawmaker Masaru Wakasa.

North Korea's recent spate of missile tests has unnerved Japanese voters and more than two-thirds of respondents to the NHK poll approve of Mr Abe's strong line on the isolated nation.

The main opposition Democratic Party appears to be unravelling with the resignation of several members since a new leader was voted in earlier this month.

"The Democratic Party is in terrible shape, so there is no opposition to Abe," Mr Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo, said. "Crises such as that on the Korean Peninsula are generally good for incumbents. You can look like you're in charge."

Senior LDP executive Koichi Hagiuda told Fuji Television on Sunday morning that while a decision to call a snap election rests with Mr Abe, the party has to be ready for a vote at any time.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister's office said that dissolving parliament for an election is the sole prerogative of the Prime Minister. A general election must be held by the end of 2018.

LDP backbencher Akimasa Ishikawa said if Mr Abe decides to call an election at the re-opening of parliament on Sept 28, it could be "good timing".

"With North Korea continuing to launch missiles, Japan's peace and security are being threatened," Mr Ishikawa said. "If parliament intends to continue with vacuous scandal attacks, rather than discussing security, we must draw a line under that."

Mr Natsuo Yamaguchi, a leader of Komeito and a coalition partner in Mr Abe's government, said that with little over a year before an election must be called, lawmakers need to be ready for an election at any time, according to an NHK report.

Mr Seiji Maehara, head of the opposition Democratic Party, said that an election at a time when North Korea is threatening Japan risks creating a political vacuum and that Mr Abe was seeking to escape questioning in parliament surrounding scandals, Kyodo reported.

Even so, some members of Mr Abe's party are more sceptical. One senior official, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private, said a snap election may be a gamble because the ruling coalition could lose its two-thirds majority.

This could slow the debate on changing the pacifist constitution to make clear the legitimacy of the nation's armed forces, the official said.

"There is also a real chance that a snap election would lead to his undoing," said political science professor Koichi Nakano at Sophia University in Tokyo. "Calling a premature election more than a year ahead of the end of the term is purely on the basis of self-interested political calculation."

A September poll showed Mr Abe's LDP had 37.7 per cent of support, up from 30.7 per cent in July. Support for the Democratic Party was 6.7 per cent, and no other national opposition political party had a higher rating, highlighting the weakness of existing opposition facing Mr Abe.

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