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Japan’s next poll falls on nine-year LDP bad-luck cycle

JIJI

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems still to have a firm grip on power in the run-up to the triennial election for the Upper House next summer.

But whispers of a bad omen for him are making the rounds in political circles.

Every nine years since 1989, the Liberal Democratic Party has suffered setbacks in Upper House elections, in which half of the seats are up for grabs, forcing its president, the prime minister, to bow out. The coming election will complete the latest nine-year cycle.

Despite Abe’s solid standing, the world of politics is full of uncertainty — and one step ahead, all is darkness. Observers will be watching closely to see whether he is able to break the jinx.

In 1989, Prime Minister Sosuke Uno led the LDP into the Upper House election in July, soon after succeeding Noboru Takeshita, who stepped down amid slumping public approval ratings due in part to his involvement in a stock-for-favors scandal involving the Recruit company.

Uno’s LDP faced voter rejection over the Recruit scandal. It also suffered from the introduction of consumption tax in April that year and a decision to open further the nation’s beef and orange markets to imports.

The LDP won only 36 of the seats available, a record low, and Uno announced his resignation the day after the vote count.

Nine years later, in the July 1998 Upper House election, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto came under attack for his government’s controversial use of public funds to dispose of the bad-loan mess involving providers of jusen, specialized housing loans.

With the additional blow of Hashimoto’s wavering attitude toward a permanent tax cut, the LDP had to settle for 44 of the 60 party seats contested in the election. The poor result forced Hashimoto to step down.

Another nine years later, in 2007, Abe was serving his first term as prime minister. Hit hard by public outrage over the government’s mismanagement of pension records and financial scandals involving politicians, the LDP under Abe garnered just 37 seats in the Upper House election in July, the second-lowest for the party.

For the first time ever, the LDP relinquished its position as the largest force in the chamber.

Abe initially pledged to stay on, but he resigned in the autumn while the Diet was in an extraordinary session.

Next summer, Abe, in his second stint as the LDP and national leader, again faces an Upper House election in the nine-year cycle of bad fortunes.

But if history is any guide, he may take encouragement from 1980, nine years before the cycle started, when the LDP scored a resounding victory in simultaneous elections for the Upper House and the House of Representatives, the all-important lower chamber.

The 150-day ordinary Diet session, scheduled to convene Monday, will end on June 1 — although it can always be extended. If Abe opts to exercise the authority vested in the prime minister and dissolves the Lower House on the adjournment day for a snap poll, simultaneous elections for both Diet chambers can be held on July 10.

There is speculation that Abe may call double elections to break the ninth-year jinx. The prime minister has said he is not considering an immediate dissolution of the Lower House, but the idea is likely to simmer within the LDP.