Abe gambles on snap election as Koike surprises with new party

by Tomohiro Osaki and Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writers

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Monday that he will dissolve the Lower House for a snap election when the Diet convenes for an extraordinary session Thursday, in a high-stakes political gamble that observers say could determine whether he survives as Japan’s leader.

At a news conference Monday evening, Abe sought to justify the expected election on Oct. 22— widely criticized as an attempt at self-preservation — as an opportunity to seek a public mandate on his decision to divert revenue from the planned 2019 consumption tax hike to education and social security, despite the nation’s snowballing public debt.

With Japan in the grip of a rapid demographic shrinkage, “we will go ahead with significant investment in order to solve major issues facing the working population in areas such as child-rearing and nursing care,” Abe told the news conference in Tokyo.

“I will accomplish this major reform by carrying out new bold policy measures worth about ¥2 trillion.”

Abe also said the ever-escalating missile and nuclear threats from North Korea suggest he needs to seek a vote on his “firm stance” against the reclusive regime — especially his policy of “maximizing pressure.”

“It is my mission as prime minister to exert strong leadership abilities at a time when Japan faces national crises stemming from the shrinking demographic and North Korea’s escalating tensions,” he said.

The tax hike to 10 percent from 8 percent planned in October 2019 is predicted to boost revenue by more than ¥5 trillion, about ¥4 trillion of which was supposed to be used to pay down government debt.

But Abe plans to divert about ¥2 trillion of the extra tax revenue each year to new education and social security programs that include free nursery and day-care services for children aged 3 to 5, and assistance for  young people in poverty seeking a higher education.

Abe’s new spending announcement is likely to increase public concern over the nation’s long-term fiscal sustainability: Japan’s public debt is now worth more than 200 percent of gross domestic product — the worst among the major developed countries.

A snap election at this time is a gamble the leader cannot afford to lose. Failure would suggest his shaky grip on power in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is weakening further, which would raise more doubts about his widely expected bid for a historic third term as LDP president, which would make him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

The prospects of an outright victory, however, were severely compromised Monday as charismatic Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike made the surprise announcement that she will found and head a new national political party called Kibo no To (Party of Hope).

Koike said she hoped to field political newbies for the election, “reform” a Japan hamstrung by decades of economic malaise and revive its declining international presence.

“When you look at the world, bold reforms are taking place everywhere, as represented by the corporate tax cuts undertaken by President Trump and President Macron (of France). Japan is lagging behind. I believe Japan needs a real reform-minded force,” she said.

Koike rebuffed criticism that flirting with national politics would slow her own efforts to reform the capital as governor and insisted her party’s influence in national politics would create a “synergistic effect” that would benefit Tokyo residents.

Her party will campaign on issues including vows to draw more women into the workforce and reduce politicians’ salaries, Koike said.

If the stunning Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Election in July is any indication, the new party could prove quite a game-changer: Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First), her regional party, whipped the LDP and saw 49 of its 50 candidates win seats.

For Abe, the longevity of his leadership is not the only thing at stake. Depending on the outcome, his route to amending the pacifist Constitution could unravel as well.

At the moment, the LDP reportedly aims to formulate a consensus on how to revise the 70-year-old charter by the end of thisyear, and to call a national referendum on its first amendment at next year’s Diet session. In May, Abe said he wants to revise the supreme law by 2020 to formalize the status of the Self-Defense Forces.

By calling a snap election, however, Abe is jeopardizing his ruling coalition’s grip on power. It controls two-thirds of the Lower House — a critical threshold for initiating a referendum.

Political observers predict the LDP will likely survive the battle fairly well, if not completely unscathed. Still, they say the race is fraught with wild cards, from the launch of Koike’s new party to an attempt by the opposition bloc to form a united front against Abe.

Over the weekend, Koike’s party saw a stream of lawmakers — including sitting Cabinet Office Vice Minister Mineyuki Fukuda, and Kyoko Nakayama, head of the right-leaning Nippon no Kokoro (Party for Japanese Kokoro) — declare plans to join. Reports say it plans to field candidates in 57 of the 58 single-seat constituencies in and around Tokyo.

Another uncertainty is the ongoing bid by the opposition bloc to field joint candidates.

In last summer’s Upper House election, four opposition parties, including the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, pulled off a historic tie-up against the ruling coalition by uniting their candidates in all 32 single-seat constituencies. The opposition secured 11 of those seats, indicating their collaboration had achieved at least partial success.

This puts new DP leader Seiji Maehara in a tough spot. Maehara stormed into the presidency earlier this month on vows to rethink ties with the leftist JCP.

Being a hawk himself, Maehara may have a stronger affinity with the new Koike party. But he said last week “it’s too early” to decide his stance on the possibility of a tie-up. What he did say, however, was that “it’s important to figure out how we can field a single candidate against a candidate (for) the ruling coalition” to win the race.

Political observers say the key to Abe’s victory hinges on the nation’s swing voters, which the latest NHK poll shows account for 40.8 percent of Japan’s electorate.

Hiroshi Hirano, a political science professor at Gakushuin University who is familiar with voter psychology, predicts the nuclear crisis in North Korea will work to Abe’s advantage, with swing voters likely to favor the LDP’s reliability in diplomacy and crisis management.

Moreover, regarding ongoing media criticism that the election is something of a farce designed to prioritize Abe’s political survival rather than win a mandate on key issues, Hirano said that will prove to be a huge turn-off, leading to a tepid turnout that will eventually benefit parties with solidly organized support, including the LDP.

“By saying Abe has called a snap election for no good reason whatsoever, the media is actually discouraging voters from going to polling stations, and doing him a favor,” the professor said.

“What’s happening right now is that when voters turn on the TV, the threat of North Korea is all over the news and they are kind of led to believe Japan is in danger, and the LDP has to be their choice. But the notion that this election lacks any major issue to think about will keep overall turnout low. It’s shaping up to be a golden scenario for Abe,” he said.

Aiji Tanaka, a political science professor at Waseda University, agrees the ruling coalition’s bid to maintain a two-thirds majority is within the realm of possibility, but at the same time pointed out that the humdrum nature of the election could dissuade not only swing voters but also casual supporters of the LDP from going to vote.

“The situation looks so in favor of the LDP that some of its casual supporters may skip the voting, because they think the LDP will win anyway regardless of whether they go to vote,” Tanaka said.

If this proves harmful and the LDP loses a substantial number of seats, “it could fuel calls within the party for Abe’s replacement when it holds a leadership election next year, and in this sense, this election is very risky for Abe nonetheless.”