Editorials

Abe's partisan quest for a snap election

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reported plan to dissolve the Lower House for a snap general election as early as next month is clearly driven by partisan interests to maximum the wins for his ruling coalition by holding the race while the opposition parties remain unprepared. It might be argued that’s exactly what a prime minister is allowed to do with his “exclusive” right to dissolve the lower chamber at the timing of his choice. Still, Abe needs to make clear to voters for what he would be seeking a fresh mandate by holding yet another snap election now — a time when North Korea’s repeated provocations of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests demand an uninterrupted government response.

For Abe, it may be the right time to go to the polls. Popular approval ratings of his administration, which plummeted to its record lows in early summer due to a series of scandals that hit his government and the Liberal Democratic Party, have been picking up again after he reshuffled his Cabinet in August. The top opposition Democratic Party, under its new chief Seiji Maehara, is in a mess with a continuing exodus of its lawmakers and sluggish popular support. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s drive to take her own fledgling political force into national politics, after its landslide in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race in July battered the LDP into devastating losses, may have little time to field enough candidates to pose a serious threat to Abe’s coalition in the Diet.

By dissolving the Lower House at the beginning of an extraordinary Diet session to open Sept. 28 — as he is widely reported to be contemplating — Abe can also forestall attempts by the opposition to grill his administration further over the scandals, including the Kake Gakuen case, in which a school operator headed by his close friend was chosen under the government’s deregulatory project to open the first veterinary science department at a university in more than 50 years, raising allegations of favoritism. Criticism that Abe is trying to dodge these issues may fly in the face of political calculations that the chances of his coalition would be better by holding the election sooner rather than later.

Since re-taking the helm of government in 2012, Abe has solidified his hold on power through a series of landslide wins in key elections. In 2014, he returned the LDP-Komeito coalition to a two-thirds majority in a snap election that apparently caught the opposition off guard. The prime minister may know from experience when it’s best to use his prerogative to hold the snap poll.

His unbroken record of election wins was broken when the LDP suffered the humiliating loss to Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) in the July race. While the Democratic Party remains unable to achieve any significant recovery in voter support, the popular governor’s anticipated move to try to replicate her success in Tokyo at the national level poses a serious challenge to the ruling coalition’s hold on a Diet majority. Following reports of Abe’s plans, Masaru Wakasa, a close Koike aide, and Goshi Hosono, who quit the DP last month, reportedly agreed to create a new party before the Diet session is convened, with several other former DP lawmakers who left the party in recent months also reportedly planning to join. However, the new party will have to enter the campaign fairly unprepared if the election is going to take place in late October.

If an election is held, the ruling coalition would risk losing its two-thirds majority in the Lower House — which, together with the supermajority it holds in the Upper House along with its political allies, will be essential for Abe’s bid to initiate an amendment to the Constitution for approval in a national referendum. It was earlier reported that many of the LDP’s junior lawmakers elected in the 2012 and 2014 races may be particularly vulnerable. Popular support for the administration is not yet back to the more robust levels it enjoyed just several months ago. Still, the prime minister may be counting on minimizing the party’s losses by holding the election while the opposition is unprepared.

The question is what will be the cause for Abe to hold the snap election now — on what issues he would be seeking a fresh voter mandate. Just last month, Abe said he would again focus on reviving the economy. Does he need the hold the election to do that? If Abe remains committed to seeking to change the Constitution while he is in office, he would also need to make that clear in the campaign — so that voters can pass their judgment on that bid.