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Abe not weighing snap poll

Bloomberg, Kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Saturday that he is not considering a snap general election this summer to coincide with a scheduled Upper House poll, and that he has no intention of delaying a planned increase in the nation’s consumption tax.

Speaking in an interview aired on a Nippon Broadcasting System Inc. radio program, Abe said he would raise the levy to 10 percent in April 2017 unless there was a big economic shock on the scale of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, or a major earthquake. “At this point,” he said, “it’s not at a Lehman-shock level, but it is necessary to keep carefully monitoring the economy.”

The world’s third-largest economy contracted in the final three months of 2015, with the misery compounded by data that showed exports in January fell the most since 2009. Wage gains have stagnated, consumer prices are barely rising and households are reluctant to spend. This year, the Topix index has plunged more than 16 percent and the yen has gained against the dollar amid concerns over China’s slowdown and U.S. growth.

Abe has won three elections on a vow to revive the economy with his Abenomics plan of loose monetary policy, flexible spending and structural reform. But the current economic woes are complicating his calculus on whether to call a Lower House election to take advantage of a divided opposition.

Abe backed the Bank of Japan’s new negative interest rate policy, saying it was not the cause of the current market turmoil. He also said that individuals’ deposit rates would not turn negative.

The prime minister also touched on electoral reform in the Lower House, saying relevant legislation will be enacted during the current Diet session to cut the number of seats in the chamber.

“I’d like to push for cutting the number of seats by 10 in the ongoing Diet session to carry out my responsibility,” he said on the program, referring to the passage of a revised Public Offices Election Law under consideration.

A panel-compiled reform plan calls for slashing the number of seats in the Lower House by 10 to 465. A smaller number of Lower House members as well as rezoning of electoral districts are part of the envisaged reform aimed at addressing vote weight disparities among single-seat electoral districts.

The proposed reform is intended to keep such disparities between the most and least populated single-seat constituencies below twofold — a threshold that when exceeded is seen by the Supreme Court as problematic from a constitutional point of view.

The nation’s electoral system that includes single-seat constituencies and proportional representation blocks for general elections was introduced in 1994.

Abe also reiterated his stance to amend part of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, referring to the second paragraph of the article that says, “Land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

“The Self-Defense Forces should be recognized and stipulated (in the supreme law),” he said.

The first paragraph of the article forbids the use of force as means of settling international disputes. The Constitution is interpreted to only allow the minimum force necessary for self-defense.

Amending the Constitution has been a “long-cherished wish of the Liberal Democratic Party since its founding 60 years ago,” said Abe, who heads the LDP, vowing “not to give up and to continue to take on this challenge.”