Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a risky move in deciding to call a snap general election and delay a planned consumption tax hike, according to a U.S.-based expert on Japan.
Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, said in a recent interview those decisions will diminish Abe’s political capital, bring uncertainty into national politic’s and could hamper future legislative goals of his administration.
She said the election may not lead to a greater consolidation of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito camp, which held a solid majority when the House of Representatives was dissolved Friday by Abe.
“Whatever the results of the election are, I doubt they will be as strong for the LDP as what the LDP has today. I think gambling on the public’s response is very risky,” Smith said.
Abe, who is also head of the LDP, says the Dec. 14 election is a way to gain a public mandate to defer the consumption tax hike for 18 months beyond the initial October 2015 target. When effectuated, the levy will rise to 10 percent from the current rate of 8 percent.
But Smith said that regardless of the timing, the public would be against such a policy. “Will the Japanese people be happy if you’re going to say we’re not going to do 2 percent now but we’ll decide 2 percent next spring? No. Either way, you’re going to get a ‘no’ answer to that,” she said.
“I don’t think you need an election to postpone the consumption tax. I think postponing the consumption (tax) and having an election will make it harder for the Abe Cabinet to do what it needs to do,” Smith said.
Arguing that Abe has gained public support for being “decisive and determined” on economic policy, Smith said he will now be perceived as “wavering” and that his political capital will be reduced by the dissolution of the all-powerful Lower House. This will, according to Smith, introduce “an awful lot of uncertainty in the future of the Abe Cabinet” that will impact government legislation other than the consumption tax hike.
Smith pointed to challenges facing Abe, such as regional revitalization and restarting Japan’s idled nuclear reactors, that need to be urgently addressed. “The election will not accomplish any of those goals. In fact, it could be a setback to some of those goals,” she said.
Smith meanwhile doubted the poll’s effect on Tokyo’s relations with Washington, saying, “I don’t think this has anything to do with U.S. relations, honestly, in terms of the government-to-government relationship.”
As for ongoing work to revise bilateral defense guidelines, she said: “I don’t think that’s really susceptible to political change in Japan. I suspect that a steady day-to-day working relationship between our alliance managers will produce a good outcome for the guidelines.”
Citing a change in the Asia-Pacific security environment, the two countries are reviewing the guidelines, which detail the roles of the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military in a contingency, for the first time since 1997.
On Japan exercising the right to collective self-defense, however, Smith said “that undoubtedly will be affected, depending on the legislative balance inside the parliament.”
In July, Abe’s Cabinet lifted the nation’s self-imposed ban on the use of the right to go to the aid of allies under armed attack, even if Japan itself is not directly targeted. The move required changing the government’s traditional postwar interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution. The Abe government has yet to sponsor any bills that would back the deployment of the SDF for collective self-defense.