Many voters on Tuesday appeared confounded at the timing of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election, questioning the need to set in motion a costly process without a clear need to secure a new national mandate.
During a Monday news conference, Abe said he will call a snap election — expected to take place on Oct. 22 — when the Diet convenes for an extraordinary session on Thursday. He said he would seek the public’s endorsement of his decision to divert revenue from the planned 2019 consumption tax hike to new education measures, including free kindergarten and day care services for all children aged 3 to 5.
To some, however, the justification sounded weak and appeared aimed at his political self-preservation.
“This is just ridiculous,” said a 74-year-old man named Mitani, who only gave his last name and who was strolling down a shopping arcade in Tokyo’s Sugamo district, an area popular with the elderly.
“Abe just formed a new Cabinet and now he’s calling for dissolving the Lower House before having achieved anything,” he said, referring to last month’s Cabinet reshuffle, which came after a series of ministerial gaffes and scandals that dented the prime minister’s popularity. “I think what he’s doing is mere political theater.”
In Osaka, Abe’s decision was greeted by many with anger, confusion and a sense that there was no pressing reason to call the election other than to take advantage of the fact the opposition is in disarray.
“The prime minister talked about more money for child-raising from the consumption tax increase. But is it necessary to call an election on an issue like that now? I don’t think so,” said Yoko Kishi, 45, an Osaka resident who said she wasn’t sure she would vote.
A planned increase in the consumption tax to 10 percent from the current 8 percent, scheduled to take place in October 2019, is projected to increase revenue by more than ¥5 trillion. Of that total, about ¥4 trillion had been eyed to pay down the nation’s mounting debt, now at around 200 percent of gross domestic product, the highest among major developed countries. But Abe’s plan calls for using around ¥2 trillion of the figure to bolster education and day care services.
Keiko Kataoka, a 34-year-old mother of two who works in Tokyo’s Otemachi area, said she’d rather see that money spent to pay down the debt for the sake of her children and future generations.
“So far I haven’t personally felt the positive impact of the government’s child care policies — it just feels like dolling out money for the sake of a momentary boost in popularity,” she said. “I’m more concerned about Japan’s fiscal sustainability since it will be our kids who will have to deal with it.”
She also said she is opposed to the use of tax revenue to fund yet another election.
According to internal affairs ministry data, around ¥61.7 billion to ¥74.6 billion in taxpayer money was used in each of the last six Lower House elections, held between 2000 and 2014.
Others were more receptive toward Abe’s decision to emphasize child care and social security.
Takaoka, a 42-year-old hair dresser who only gave his last name, said Abe had every right as prime minister to dissolve the Lower House for an election, and praised the plan to use tax revenue to make nursery and day care services free of charge.
“Extra tax revenue should be used to enhance social security, rather than paying down government debt,” he said.
Abe’s decision to call an election comes amid North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats, which have heightened tensions in the region. Abe suggested that the vote was needed to seek support for his “firm stance” against the hermit state, a strategy that could woo voters who prefer the stability of an incumbent party.
Imura, a 79-year-old man in Sugamo who only gave his last name, said he intended to vote for a conservative-leaning party like Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party or the Osaka-centered Nippon Ishin no Kai, an opposition party that is ideologically close to the LDP.
Citing rising concerns over the North’s missile threat, he said he “can’t rely on other parties to have control over our policies.”
“I won’t say Abe is the best leader. But the LDP has many capable policymakers” who can take over the leadership in emergency situations, he said.
Some voters worried that if the LDP didn’t do as well as expected, it could prompt a leadership struggle amid the North Korea crisis.
“I’m worried that North Korea might take advantage of the confusion that could follow and launch another missile over Japan,” said Yoichi Mori, 55, an Osaka resident who said he would be voting for the LDP.
Reactions were mixed toward Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s decision to launch a new national political party called Kibo no To (Party of Hope).
A 31-year-old male office worker who asked not to be named described Koike’s move as “selfish,” implying that she should divert more of her time and resources to her job as governor.
“Some say Koike hasn’t put in enough effort to reform Tokyo,” he said. But the man, who was walking near Shinjuku Station, had this to say about the upcoming election: “The majority sees the snap election as meaningless.”
Koike’s popularity could pose a serious problem for Abe and the LDP if the results of July’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Election are any indication. Her regional party, Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First), crushed the LDP and saw 49 of its 50 candidates win seats.
A woman in her 60s who also asked not to be named said she plans to vote for Koike’s new party, a decision prompted by anger toward Abe’s decision to call an election. She criticized the timing as a ploy to hold on to power.
“I wish he looked after his own people a little more,” she said.
In Osaka, voters did not appear to have high expectations for Koike’s party’s prospects in the region. Some said that while they were angry with Abe for calling the election, a scattered opposition meant that there was little choice but to cast a vote for the LDP, Komeito or for Nippon Ishin.
Kibo no To is “Tokyo-based, doesn’t seem to have a clear platform or purpose, and appears to be relying a lot on Koike’s image to succeed,” said Maki Yoshida, 33, who said she’ll vote for a Nippon Ishin candidate.
Staff writers Shusuke Murai, Daisuke Kikuchi and Eric Johnston contributed to this report.