It’s finally official. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday he will dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election next month, after his administration decided to delay the next hike in the consumption tax until April 2017.
Voters will be justified in wondering why now.
A national election will cost as much as ¥60 billion in taxpayers’ money, and the members of the Lower House still have two years left in their four-year terms.
Abe’s ruling camp holds an absolute majority of 325 seats in the chamber and therefore has few technical obstacles to pushing through its bills.
But when the Lower House is dissolved, all administration-sponsored bills will be scrapped, including a much-vaunted measure designed to promote the status of women in male-dominated Japanese society — a pet policy of Abe’s.
Abe says he needs to ask voters to endorse his decision to push back the second stage of the sales tax hike, to 10 percent, by 18 months. But no major party opposes the idea, and Abe will find he has no one to argue it with.
Abe would never admit in public what is widely believed to be the real reason for the snap election: A campaign as early as next month will likely strengthen the ruling camp and Abe himself.
The prime minister plans to submit controversial bills to the Diet in the spring, including those based on his reinterpretation of the Constitution to expand Self-Defense Forces’ missions overseas.
Next year, Abe also plans to reactivate some of the nuclear reactors that have mostly sat idle since the Fukushima meltdowns, a hotly contested move that would likely sap support from the Liberal Democratic Party in a national election next year.
Abe will face a LDP presidential election in fall next year. He probably wants to build up a solid political base by scoring a victory in a national election before the spring and thereby extend his tenure as LDP president and prime minister beyond the fall, according to Takeshi Sasaki, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Tokyo.
“Abe probably has a vision of a long-term administration. I think he wants to dissolve the Lower House for that purpose,” said Sasaki, whose views are widely shared by other informed observers.
He said that in the upcoming election the LDP may lose seats in the chamber because in the 2012 election it secured a huge majority, 294 of the 480 seats, thanks to huge voter frustration with the Democratic Party of Japan-led government.
But Abe’s tactics still appear well-timed, and an election now will probably be better than later for the LDP.
Abe’s administration currently enjoys a relatively high approval rating, of 44 percent in the latest NHK poll, conducted Nov. 7 to 9. The LDP itself has an approval rating of 36.6 percent, more than four times the 7.9 percent for the DPJ.
Voters are also expected to welcome Abe’s decision to delay the tax hike. According to a Nov. 8-9 poll by the Asahi Shimbun, 67 percent of the 1,897 respondents said they were opposed to raising the consumption tax, while 24 percent supported the idea.
There is little doubt that the LDP-Komeito ruling camp will retain power, and Abe could even strengthen his political base within the LDP.
“An (early) election will basically give an advantage to the ruling parties,” Sasaki said.
The situation, however, might not be as good as Abe thinks.
A possible game changer emerged Monday when the Cabinet Office said gross domestic product shrank an annualized 1.6 percent in the July-September period — a second consecutive decline and the definition of a recession.
Economists were stunned. They had expected positive growth for the quarter, making it difficult for administration officials to defend their management of the economy.
Opposition lawmakers are calling the recession evidence that Abe’s “Abenomics” policies have failed.
Abenomics — ultra-aggressive monetary easing, combined with higher spending and structural reforms to raise Japan’s growth potential — so far has pushed up stock prices in Tokyo and lowered the yen and thereby benefited export-driven major manufacturers.
But shrinking wages in real terms have effectively lowered the standard of living and small companies are suffering from rising import costs.
Opposition lawmakers believe they can capitalize on voters’ frustrations. “Abenomics has only made the rich even richer. It’d be OK for people who made money by trading stocks in wild ups and downs on today’s market, but it has nothing to do with people living on a pension,” DPJ President Banri Kaieda told a crowd gathered outside Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station on Monday.
Meanwhile, administration officials argue that Abenomics has improved the economy.
Sasaki of the University of Tokyo said the election will be a referendum on Abe’s economic policies, not the sales tax itself: “That’s good. Politicians should debate what Abenomics meant, sooner or later.”