Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may hold a snap general election next month, local media reported, a move that would allow him to seize on opposition disarray and growing support for his handling of the North Korea crisis.
Abe appears increasingly inclined to call an election amid a recovery in public support following a spate of scandals, public broadcaster NHK reported, without saying where it obtained the information. He’ll make a decision after talks with senior Liberal Democratic Party and government officials and may announce the move as early as Sept. 28 when parliament reopens, according to NHK.
A vote is most likely to be held on Oct. 29, the Sankei newspaper reported. An NHK poll last week showed that support for Abe’s ruling coalition climbed 5 points to 44 percent 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 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 Abe’s strong line on the isolated nation. The main opposition Democratic Party appears to be unraveling 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,” Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo, said by email. “Crises such as that on the Korean Peninsula are generally good for incumbents. You can look like you’re in charge.”
Koichi Hagiuda, a senior LDP executive, told Fuji Television on Sunday morning that while a decision to call a snap election rests with 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. Akimasa Ishikawa, an LDP backbencher, said if 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,” Ishikawa said. “If parliament intends to continue with vacuous scandal attacks, rather than discussing security, we must draw a line under that.”
Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Komeito, and a coalition partner in 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. 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 Abe was seeking to escape questioning in parliament surrounding scandals, Kyodo reported.
Even so, some members of Abe’s party are more skeptical. 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 Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science 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 Abe’s LDP had 37.7 percent of support, up from 30.7 percent in July. Support for the Democratic Party was 6.7 percent, and no other national opposition political party had a higher rating, highlighting the weakness of existing opposition facing Abe.
Abe suffered a heavy defeat in an election for the local Tokyo assembly in July at the hands of a new party formed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. This was blamed on cronyism scandals that tarnished Abe’s image. Koike’s Tomin First (Tokyo Residents First) party has yet to create a strong national base.
Lawmaker Wakasa repeated that he expected Tokyo Governor Koike to offer support for a national election, NHK reported. Koike delivered a historic defeat to Abe’s party during the summer when LDP seats in the municipal assembly fell to a record low and Abe’s grip on power as one of Japan’s longest serving premier’s came into doubt.
Koike spoke at an event organized by Wakasa in Tokyo Saturday, and said Japan needs “a new perspective rather than depending on politics constrained by many ties,” according to a Jiji report. Wakasa said his grouping is preparing for an election and would be able to stand some candidates in a general election.
Abe’s consideration of a snap election may in part be influenced by discussion of a new national party associated with Koike, according to NHK. Temple University’s Dujarric said that Koike wouldn’t have time to prepare a challenge to Abe.