Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to dissolve the Lower House later this month for a general election seems motivated by political calculation rather than any desire to seek a fresh mandate for policies.
Looking around, the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party must have seen support for his Cabinet rebounding somewhat after tanking amid a string of scandals, and the main opposition Democratic Party reeling from lawmaker departures.
Abe has prioritized “his own interests, rather than putting forward a good reason for dissolving” the House of Representatives, a member of his own party said.
Opposition parties have criticized Abe’s plan as a deception, saying there is no reason to hold an election and that by dissolving the chamber he will avoid responsibility for explaining the cronyism allegations linked to the opening of a rare new veterinary department at a university run by his friend, and the heavily discounted purchase of state land by a nationalist school operator once plugged by his wife.
At a gathering Sunday in Tokyo attended by family members of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea and their supporters, Abe made clear his desire to stay in power, vowing to resolve the long-standing issue under his continued leadership.
“We will press North Korea to make a decision (to return the abductees), with strong determination that the abduction issue will be resolved by the Abe Cabinet,” Abe told the rally.
His abrupt plan to dissolve the Lower House emerged as his Cabinet’s approval ratings showed signs of recovering after he tried reshuffling its members in early August.
The Cabinet’s ratings had plunged over a pair of alleged favoritism scandals, one involving Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution), a university operator run by his close friend, and the other involving private school operator Moritomo Gakuen.
When the Diet reconvenes for an extraordinary session on Sept. 28, the prime minister will inevitably face intense grilling by the opposition over these allegations. Abe, once though invulnerable, reportedly intends to dissolve the Lower House the same day, media reports say.
“The government could come under scrutiny from the public again, and its approval ratings may start falling,” again, an LDP Diet affairs source explained.
Another senior LDP member said Abe has judged it “wise to dissolve (the Lower House) before the problems get bigger,” because the Board of Audit is expected to report the results of its probe into Moritomo Gakuen’s land deal, and the education ministry may make a decision in late October on whether to approve the new veterinary school sought by Kake Gakuen.
In addition, an LDP source cited “a loss of confidence” in the Cabinet by members of Abe’s team as behind his plan to dissolve the Diet.
“If we miss this timing, when the Kake Educational Institution (issue) and other issues are calming down temporarily, it will become uncertain whether the Cabinet will be able to maintain its approval ratings at the 40 percent level,” the source said.
The opposition parties are far from prepared for a general election. The DP shows no signs of recovering despite installing a new executive team under President Seiji Maehara, who was elected earlier this month.
Several members have resigned from the struggling party with an eye to joining a new one envisioned by Masaru Wakasa, an independent who is close to popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.
“I can’t imagine being defeated by the troubled Democratic Party,” a senior LDP politician said, adding that the pair’s presumed inability to wage an election campaign on such short notice with a new party would be “a positive factor.”
If he goes ahead with the snap election, Abe will be risking the loss of his two-thirds majority in the powerful lower chamber.
The LDP’s ruling coalition with Komeito, with the help of other pro-amendment forces, holds two-thirds majorities in both houses, giving it the power needed to initiate amendments to the war-renouncing Constitution — Abe’s lifelong dream.
“The prime minister has changed his policy to a realistic way of prioritizing maintaining the government, by reducing losses as much as possible,” a member of the ruling coalition said.
“He can pursue his goal of revising the Constitution with new force” after the election, the lawmaker added.
The timing of the plan, however, stands to be criticized, given that North Korea recently conducted a sixth nuclear test and continues to fire missiles over Japan. The Abe administration often touts its crisis-management capabilities as one of its strongest points.
But a person close to Abe said, “The prime minister will counter such criticism by saying he is the only one who can deal properly with the North Korea crisis.”
Maehara criticized Abe’s plan to dissolve the Lower House as motivated by self-preservation and a need to evade responsibility for the cronyism allegations.
Another senior Democratic Party lawmaker also remarked that, by prioritizing his party’s interests, the prime minister is abandoning his responsibility to manage the North Korea crisis.
But a senior DP official involved in campaigning said such criticisms also reflect the opposition party’s “impatience over its delayed preparations for a Lower House election.”
Preoccupied with the string of apparent defections, the Democratic Party’s campaign pledges remain a work in progress, and the issue of whether it should cooperate with other opposition parties remains in limbo. Maehara recently hinted that the DP’s cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party would be reviewed.
After meeting with Maehara and the other executive members on Sunday, Secretary-General Atsushi Oshima emerged only to say that they had “checked the current situation.”
But another senior member said: “Looking at the current executive lineup, they have their hands full with their own elections” to keep their Diet seats.
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