Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday categorically denied that he is considering dissolving the Lower House for a snap election, amid rumors suggesting he could resort to such a political gamble as his support rates plummet.
“I would like to say, loud and clear, that dissolving the Lower House for a general election is nowhere in my mind,” Abe told the Lower House Budget Committee, in response to a question from opposition lawmaker Kazumi Sugimoto of the conservative Nippon Ishin no Kai.
Abe’s comment came a day after Hiroshi Moriyama, Diet affairs chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, had abruptly floated the idea that Abe could dissolve the Lower House as a way to counter a potential move by the opposition bloc to submit a motion of no confidence against Abe’s Cabinet, following a litany of recent scandals involving the prime minister.
“What is needed now is to thoroughly discuss policies and put into action what we promised” in October’s general election, Abe said, vowing to “shed full light” on recent scandals — which include document mishandling at government ministries — that he said have “undermined public trust” in the nation’s bureaucracy.
Abe’s denial, however, may not quell speculation over his real intentions. Under the traditions of Nagatacho, the political epicenter of the nation, it is widely considered politically acceptable for the prime minister to publicly lie about when to call a snap election.
In recent weeks Abe has seen his popularity nosedive over a string of scandals that have rocked his administration, including alleged cronyism leveled at himself and allegations of sexual harassment that led to the resignation of Junichi Fukuda, a top Finance Ministry bureaucrat. Finance Minister Taro Aso, who has also been hit by a document falsification scandal, faces mounting calls for his resignation from the opposition, which has been boycotting Diet sessions in protest.
Of the opposition parties, only Nippon Ishin attended Thursday’s budget committee deliberations.
Kiyomi Tsujimoto, Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, reiterated Thursday that her party will keep boycotting sessions until Aso resigns and the ruling bloc agrees to summon Tadao Yanase — the prime minister’s former executive assistant, who allegedly played a key role in a cronyism scandal involving Abe-linked school operator Kake Gakuen — as a sworn witness to the Diet for questioning.
With his popularity tumbling, this wouldn’t appear to be the most opportune moment for Abe to call a snap election. A vote would risk the LDP-led coalition losing a two-thirds “super-majority” in the Lower House — a threshold he needs to initiate a national referendum on revising the postwar Constitution to achieve his long-term dream.
But even so, Isao Iijima, a special adviser to Abe, reportedly told a TV program on BS Fuji last week that Abe should “dissolve the Lower House as soon as possible so he can once again demonstrate to the public his determination to implement policies and face important challenges encircling his Cabinet.” Iijima even went as far as to suggest June 3 as the date for a possible general election.
The prospect of a snap election raised by Moriyama and Iijima also coincides with recent steps taken by two struggling opposition parties — the Democratic Party and Kibo no To (Party of Hope) — to reorganize themselves into one party.
The planned merger has already been agreed between the heads of each party. According to Kibo no To President Yuichiro Tamaki the new entity will be called Kokumin Minshuto, which he said will be translated as the National Democratic Party.
Responding to what he took to be Moriyama’s attempt to “threaten” the opposition with the mention of a snap election, Tamaki was quoted by Kyodo News as telling a party gathering: “I’d say bring it on. We will prepare ourselves for the election with the creation of a new party. We are not threatened.”
It remains to be seen, however, how many rank-and-file members of the DP and Kibo no To will agree to migrate to the as-yet unfounded party. It’s also questionable whether the merger will prove to be a game-changer for the parties, both of whom have seen their support rates dwindle. In an NHK poll conducted from April 6-8,the DP’s support rate was a mere 1.4 percent, while Kibo no To’s was even lower at 0.3 percent.
Asahi Shimbun reported Thursday it had so far confirmed that at least 61 lawmakers from the two parties — 38 in the Lower House and 23 in the Upper House — intend to join the new party.
If Asahi’s report proves true, the party will become the second largest opposition force in the Lower House, behind the CDP, and become the biggest opposition force in the Upper House. Wednesday’s Diet deliberations took place as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un prepared to meet Friday for a historic inter-Korean summit.
Abe took the opportunity to emphasize what he touted as the success of his recent meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Florida. Abe has said Tokyo and Washington were able to reaffirm their joint policy of pressing Kim to dismantle not only intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland but also its cache of shorter-range missiles that pose a threat to Japan.
Abe also said that he had successfully secured Moon’s promise during their teleconference on Tuesday to raise during the inter-Korean summit the issue of Japanese abductees kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s