National / Politics

At debate, Abe pins election hopes on tough stance against North Korea

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday justified his decision to call a snap election later this month as a chance to seek a mandate from the public on his policy of maximizing pressure on North Korea ahead of a series of meetings with world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, later this year.

Attending a nationally televised debate with the leaders of several other political parties, Abe sought to drum up public support for his controversial decision last month to dissolve Lower House and call the Oct. 22 snap poll.

“This is an election that will determine Japan’s future,” Abe said.

The prime minister cited the growing threat from nuclear-armed North Korea, including the regime’s repeated tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs, as a key reason for his electoral decision.

Trump is expected to pay a visit to Japan in November. Abe is also set to sit down with other world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to be held in Vietnam next month.

“I’d like to win a public mandate for my current policy regarding North Korea — which is to thoroughly pressure the regime — as well as my strong diplomatic skills before these meetings take place,” Abe said.

By playing up his battle with Pyongyang, Abe has ostensibly characterized the upcoming election as a chance to “break through Japan’s national crises,” though skepticism over the timing has abounded.

Opposition parties allege Abe dissolved the Lower House at the onset of an extraordinary session of the Diet on Sept. 28 to avoid being grilled over favoritism scandals involving a close friend and confidant.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who heads the upstart party Kibo no To (Party of Hope), accused Abe and his administration of failing to hold itself accountable for the scandals, citing what she said was a tepid attitude toward disclosing key information.

Abe, however, responded by insisting on his innocence, noting that hours spent deliberating the issues at the Diet have so far failed to prove any direct involvement in the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals.

Questioned by Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii about the apparent rush to call the election, Abe again cited North Korea.

“Wait any longer and the situation in the North would further escalate,” he said.

Also at issue was Abe’s decision to divert revenue from the planned 2019 consumption tax hike to education and social security, despite Japan’s snowballing public debt.

Koike, widely seen as the main challenger to Abe’s ruling coalition, reasserted that Kibo no To will “put a freeze” on the unpopular hike, saying Japan’s economy under Abenomics is not yet strong enough to justify the move.

Kibo no To, she said, will instead campaign on a “Yurinomics” platform that includes levying more taxes on corporate internal reserves in a bid to boost employment and capital investment.

Abe said he will declare victory if the Liberal Democratic Party and its partner Komeito secure at least a combined 233 seats — a majority in the 465-member Lower House.