National / Politics

Abe says snap election 'nowhere on my mind,' but few likely to take his words at face value

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday sought to quell recent speculation that he may dissolve the Lower House to coincide with July’s pre-scheduled Upper House poll in a political gamble often dubbed a “double election.”

“The idea of dissolving (the Lower House) is nowhere on my mind,” Abe told Toranosuke Katayama, co-head of conservative opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai. Abe’s comment came during his first face-off in a year with opposition leaders under the Japanese equivalent of the British Parliament’s Question Time.

But few are likely to take his words at face value, as it is an open secret in Nagatacho, the political epicenter of Japan, that prime ministers are allowed to publicly lie about when to call a snap election.

Rumors of a double election have been swirling in recent weeks and days as Abe braces for the crucial Upper House election in July. Some political observers have pointed out that given an expected economic slowdown in the fall, his Cabinet’s high approval ratings and a hectic political calendar over the next two years, now may be the best possible timing for Abe to call a snap election.

Speaking to a gathering in the city of Utsunomiya on Tuesday, Finance Minister Taro Aso reportedly recalled a surprise move pulled off by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1986 to dissolve the Lower House despite widespread predictions that he wouldn’t.

“At that time, it was being said there was a 200 percent chance that he won’t call a snap election, but he did anyway,” Aso was quoted by public broadcaster NHK as saying. “That’s the reality. It’s only Prime Minister Abe who knows what’s going to happen.”

As the Upper House poll nears, opposition parties have been seeking to play up a recent furor over a report by a Financial Services Agency council that casts doubt on the sustainability of the public pension system. That topic dominated Wednesday’s session, where Abe again questioned its legitimacy and called it “misleading.”

In his debate with Yukio Edano, head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Abe reiterated the report was flawed in that it painted an oversimplified picture of post-retirement lives that he said should vary depending on each individual, and gave the public the misguided impression that the public pension system is not sustainable at all.

“The huge problem about the FSA council’s report is that it has caused huge misunderstanding by stating — based on some averaged figures — that pension beneficiaries will face a monthly deficit of ¥50,000, or a total ¥20 million if they live to the age of 95 years old,” Abe told Edano. “But the reality is the lifestyle of each pensioner varies.”

Edano accused Abe of emphasizing only the perceived “security” of the pension system while his government refuses to even accept the report and therefore avoids facing the reality depicted in it. Abe, meanwhile, repeated that his government remains convinced that the public pension system can provide “the pillar on which people can subsist after retirement” — although he acknowledged it alone cannot sustain their post-retirement lives entirely.

Abe also repeatedly stressed that the sustainability of the pension system has been bolstered since he returned to office in 2012. He claimed a mechanism called “macroeconomic slide” — which was introduced as part of a 2004 pension reform to reduce pension payout levels as the size of the working-age population falls and people’s average life expectancy increases — has started properly functioning under his Abenomics policy mix.

Wednesday marked the first time in about a year that Abe faced off one-on-one with opposition leaders at question time.

Although it was originally introduced to invigorate policy discussions between leaders of the ruling and opposition parties, the system has barely been able to play that role in recent years, with a fragmented opposition having to divvy up its 45-minute session to grill Abe.

On Wednesday, Edano was afforded 20 minutes and Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People, 14 minutes, while Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii and Katayama were each left with a mere 5 minutes and 30 seconds.

When he dueled with Abe in May last year, Edano, frustrated with his opponent’s rambling answers that chipped away at his already limited share of question time, declared the system was no longer serving its original purpose. This assessment was echoed by Abe a month later when Edano retaliated with a similarly lengthy monologue during a separate question time session

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