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Despite denial, don’t be surprised if Abe calls snap election

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Staff Writer

Even in Nagatacho, the epicenter of Japanese politics, telling a lie in public is considered ethically unacceptable for a politician — at least officially.

But it’s a widely held belief that there are two exceptions: politicians can fib about their health and obfuscate about dissolving the Lower House to call a snap election.

Indeed, many prime ministers have lied about their intentions and suddenly dissolved the chamber for a snap election, often catching opposition parties unprepared.

The prime minister has the power to dissolve the Lower House at any time, and calling an election that gives the ruling camp an advantage is considered a sound tactic.

This belief has added fuel to now widespread speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may dissolve the chamber as early as next week — most likely after Monday — despite his public denial.

On Sunday, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Abe was considering dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election if he were to delay the plan to hike the consumption tax next October to 10 percent.

If Abe does dissolve the Lower House, an election could be held on Dec. 14 or Dec. 21, the Yomiuri reported, citing several informed sources. Later in the day, Abe denied the reports, saying he is “not at all considering” such a move.

Still, major parties have already began hustling to prepare for a possible election.

“An early election scenario before the end of the year has been reported. We have no choice but to consider preparing accordingly,” Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi told a news conference Tuesday.

Calling an election in or after next spring, as initially anticipated, might be a tougher road for Abe since a number of controversial administration-sponsored bills will be submitted to the Diet. He is also expected to make a decision on the contentious issue of restarting some of reactors suspended after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Meanwhile, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has continued to maintain far higher rates of support than the opposition, adding credibility to speculation he is favoring an early election.

According to the latest NHK poll, conducted from Friday through Sunday, the approval rating for the Cabinet fell 8 points to 44 percent while the disapproval rating jumped 4 points to 38 percent from the month before.

The same poll, however, showed the LDP still enjoying a support rate of 36.6 percent, while the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, garnered a meager 7.9 percent, followed by the Japanese Communist Party with 3.5 percent, Komeito with 2.2 percent and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) at 1.2 percent.

“(An early election) would definitely favor the LDP, which now boasts a support rate more than three times higher than that of the DPJ,” said Hiroshi Miura, an election analyst who also runs the Tokyo-based election consulting firm Ask Co.

“The only scenario in which opposition parties can beat the LDP is if they were to combine all their forces, from the DPJ to the Japanese Communist Party. But that is impossible,” he said.

Instead, the opposition camp appears unprepared for any national election.

The DPJ, which has now 56 Lower House members, has already decided on about 130 candidates for the next general election.

But according to media reports, candidates from other opposition parties are expected to face off against DPJ members in more than 50 districts, which would split the anti-LDP vote and likely lead to the opposition, as a whole, losing seats in the Lower House.

What’s more, opposition leaders have yet to start “election cooperation” talks to create common policy proposals and avoid overlapping candidates in certain districts. Observers say Abe may be willing to take advantage of this lack of preparedness.

The critical decision may come soon after next Monday, when the first preliminary data on gross domestic product for the July-September period is to be released. Abe is also due to return that day from a whirlwind overseas diplomatic tour.

Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga have repeatedly said that the prime minister will decide whether to go ahead with next fall’s consumption tax hike after the second preliminary data on GDP is released Dec. 8.

But speculation is running high that if the preliminary data shows a significant drop in GDP, Abe may use that as a pretext to postpone the tax hike plan and to call a snap poll as well, claiming that voters should judge the decision to postpone the tax hike amid the weak data.

Polls have suggested that voters would likely approve of such a decision, although international concerns over Japan’s snowballing public debt would only further increase without a tax hike.

According to a poll conducted Nov. 8 and 9 by the Asahi Shimbun, 67 percent of 1,898 respondents said they are opposed to the tax hike, while 24 percent supported the idea.