Japan to hold snap election on Oct 22, campaigning starts on Oct 10

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a Lower House budget committee session in Parliament in Tokyo on July 24, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japan dissolved the Lower House of Parliament on Thursday (Sept 28), paving the way for snap polls on Oct 22.

Campaigning for the election will start on Oct 10.

Opposition lawmakers skipped the parliament session en masse on Thursday to protest against the snap poll, which is being held more than a year before it is due.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the start of a Cabinet meeting on Thursday morning that the snap poll will be an opportunity for a thorough debate on policy issues.

"Our job, as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)... is to explain our policies and produce results," he said.

Voting is not compulsory, and is open to Japanese citizens aged 18 and above.

Some 465 seats will be put up for contest in the Lower House poll.

All eyes are on what has been framed as a showdown between Mr Abe's LDP and the days-old Kibo No To (Party Of Hope) that is run by his former ally, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

Although his support ratings had dropped below 30 per cent two months ago over two cronyism scandals, Mr Abe, 63, and his LDP had been widely expected to claim a routine victory, despite potential voter fatigue at yet another election. For Tokyo residents at least, this would be their fourth election since July last year.

But that was until Ms Koike, 65, sent shockwaves nationwide with her surprise announcement on Monday that she would herself be helming the new Kibo No To, instead of playing a supporting role in its formation.

She intends to field at least 100 candidates nationwide, which by itself will not allow the Kibo No To to unilaterally form the government - this will require winning at least 233 out of the 465 seats up for grabs.

Ms Koike, with her disarming charisma and media savviness, is a widely popular maverick politician who has twice taken on the LDP - and won. She was an eight-term Lower House lawmaker until July last year, when she quit to run for Tokyo governor against the LDP-backed candidate.

In July this year, she led a new party, the local Tomin First No Kai (Tokyoites First), to a resounding victory over the LDP. Tomin First fielded 50 candidates and won 49 seats, ousting more than half of the LDP's candidates along the way.

This time round, she will not be throwing her hat into the ring as a candidate, but will stump for her candidates, as she said on Wednesday.

The main national opposition Democratic Party (DP), now a waning force despite having been briefly in power from 2009 to 2012, has proposed fielding its candidates under the banner of Kibo No To.

This came after the party started haemorrhaging lawmakers to Ms Koike's new party, which like Mr Abe's LDP, upholds a conservative ideology and wants to amend the Constitution.

Ms Koike has not commented on what would effectively be a party merger.

The DP takes a left-leaning platform but comprises a hodgepodge of liberals and conservatives, and Kibo No To's Makaru Wakasa has said the party "cannot work with anyone who does not want to amend the Constitution".

Media polls over the weekend had shown Mr Abe was likely to claim a resounding victory - but with the assumption that Ms Koike would not be front and centre of the campaign.

Media polls released on Thursday showed Ms Koike's new party gaining some traction. The Mainichi daily said 18 per cent of voters intended to vote for Kibo No To, compared to 29 per cent for the LDP.

The Asahi Shimbun showed 13 per cent planned to vote for the Kibo No To, compared to 32 per cent for the LDP.

The polls asked respondents which party they would vote for under the "party list" proportional representation segment of their ballot.

Mr Abe has couched the election - which was due only in December 2018 - as necessary on two fronts: First, a referendum on how the projected increase of five trillion yen (S$60.5 billion) in tax revenue from a slated tax hike in October 2019 from 8 per cent to 10 per cent would be spent. As much as 80 per cent of it was to be used to pay down debt and 20 per cent on social security issues, but Mr Abe is now championing a 50-50 split.

Mr Abe is also seeking a public mandate on his government's strategy of continuing to up the pressure on a belligerent North Korea.

But experts and laymen alike have accused him of using these reasons as an excuse to pull the wool over their eyes, and said Mr Abe was just capitalising on a rebound in his support ratings to seek political legitimacy - and another four years in power.

Mr Abe's LDP and its ruling coalition partner Komeito now have 323 seats, controlling more than two-thirds of the Lower House.

But Mr Abe was ready to give up as many as 90 seats in what looks to be a high-stakes race. He has set a comparatively low bar, to win the 233 seats needed to form the government.

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