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Busy 2017 schedule fuels rumors of snap Lower House election in January

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Just over two months have passed since the July Upper House election, in which the ruling Liberal Democratic Party scored a victory, further cementing the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But rumors of another major election are already circulating in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district, the political epicenter of the nation.

Some ruling bloc lawmakers now warn that Abe may dissolve the Lower House at the outset of the ordinary Diet session planned for January.

Speculation gained momentum Wednesday as Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the ruling coalition’s junior partner Komeito, urged his peers to brace for a possible snap election in January.

“If Prime Minister Abe decides to do it, we would not be able to refuse,” Yamaguchi reportedly said in a speech he delivered in Tokyo.

The main supporter of Komeito is Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization. Alongside Komeito the group has worked as an election machine for many LDP members, and together they are believed to hold sway on the timing of an LDP prime minister’s decision to dissolve the lower chamber and call a snap election.

But why another election in January?

Lawmakers point out the political schedule will be tight at other times next year, and Abe likely wants to trigger a snap election well before September 2018, when his three-year term as party president is set to expire.

A prime minister runs the risk of becoming a lame duck once the end of their term draws near.

July of 2017 will see a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, during which Komeito will be occupied with backing its own candidates, and by May 27 an expert panel is obliged to draft electoral reform proposals to address vote-value disparities between urban and depopulated areas for single-seat constituencies of the Lower House.

Based on the panel’s recommendations, the Diet is expected to enact an electoral reform bill, and a moratorium period of one month will postpone any prospects of a Lower House election.

Add to this the LDP’s recent decision to hold its 2017 annual convention in March instead of January, and the theory grows that Abe may dissolve the Lower House in January.

Given this packed political slate, the windows of opportunity when Abe could call a snap election look rather scant, said Jun Azumi, deputy president of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition force.

“It’s right to assume a dissolution could take place anytime soon,” Azumi told a news conference on Wednesday at the Diet building.

“And we have a feeling that the chances of dissolution look rather slim, with the exception of the outset of next year,” he added.

The Constitution allows a prime minister to dissolve the Lower House, triggering a snap election, at any time. For this reason, leaders tend to time the move to coincide with spikes in their party’s popularity.

Right now, Abe’s LDP finds itself in the position of having no significant challengers, which has made the speculation of an early snap election look all the more realistic.

The voter support rate for the DP stood only at 12 percent in a Sept. 23 to 25 poll by the Nikkei business daily, despite the recent ascension of new DP president Renho.

Renho, who goes only by her first name, was elected as the party leader on Sept. 15.

Many DP members hoped the former TV newscaster would reboot the party’s popularity among voters. But a scandal over her dual Japan-Taiwan citizenship is believed to have considerably dented her image as a fresh political leader.

Meanwhile, the LDP’s support rate stands at 42 percent, more than three times as high as that for the DP, according to the Nikkei survey and similar media polls. Similar results in the latest media polls have further strengthened the speculation that Abe may dissolve the Lower House as early as in January.