In formally announcing that he will dissolve the Lower House for a snap election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he needs a mandate by the voters for his plan to dedicate revenue from the next consumption tax hike to support for child-rearing, including free pre-school education. This would force the government to delay its target of achieving a fiscal primary balance by 2020. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party also reportedly hopes to include in its campaign promises his bid to amend Article 9 of the Constitution. It’s not clear, however, whether these issues have been discussed sufficiently to build a consensus — even within the LDP — before seeking voters’ judgment.
Abe said he is also seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate so that his administration can respond on a more solid footing to the security challenges posed by North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons programs. However, the prime minister has not made clear what specific actions he intends to take. This could leave voters baffled over just why they are being asked to back him at the ballot box. The various causes that he cited for holding the snap election at this point — including his claim that he is dissolving the Lower House “to break through the national crisis” — sound less than convincing.
His decision to call the snap poll seems driven more by the political calculation that the LDP can maximize the seats it can win — or minimize its possible losses — by once again catching the opposition off guard. The popular approval ratings for Abe’s administration, whose plunge to their worst levels just a few months ago appeared to make an imminent election impractical, have quickly recovered. Meanwhile, the largest opposition Democratic Party remains in tatters, with the recent choice of Seiji Maehara as new chief failing either to uplift its sluggish voter support or halt the moves by its lawmakers to desert the struggling party — many of them to join a new party being launched by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. The popular governor, whose local party upstaged the LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July, scrambled to launch the national party in time for Abe’s snap election announcement. It is uncertain, however, how far yet another fledgling party can go, even by teaming up with the DP defectors, in the vote just weeks from now.
It is generally considered the prime minister’s exclusive right to hold a snap election at the time of his or her choice. Politically, Abe would be justified in trying to dictate the timing of the next election for the Lower House, the term of whose current members run through December 2018, to his maximum advantage. Whether that serves voters’ interests is a different issue, especially given that Abe’s LDP-Komeito ruling coalition already have a two-thirds majority grip on the lower chamber and faces no immediate problem in running the administration. Voters themselves are apparently mystified by the decision. A Kyodo News poll taken over the weekend showed that 64 percent of the respondents opposed Abe dissolving the Lower House now as opposed to 23 percent who supported it.
Political wisdom dictates that an administration would be in a disadvantage if it’s cornered into holding an election toward the end of the four-year term of Lower House members, since such a situation would deprive the prime minister of much space for political maneuvering. It would be natural for Abe to want to hold — and win — the election before his current term as LDP president expires in September 2018, thereby securing his bid for a third three-year term.
According to the same Kyodo News poll, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said they are not convinced of the government’s account of the scandals involving school operators Kake Gakuen and Moritomo Gakuen — the first one involving allegations of favoritism toward a university run by Abe’s longtime friend, and the other over the sale of a government-owned tract of land at a questionable discount for construction of an elementary school in Osaka that was to have the prime minister’s wife as “honorary principal.” The government and the LDP have ignored for months the opposition camp’s demand for reopening the Diet probe into the scandals, and Abe is dissolving the Lower House for the snap election at the opening of the new Diet session that opens Thursday. The opposition may be justified in criticizing the prime minister for attempting to hide the scandals from more scrutiny before going to the polls. It will now be in the hands of voters to pass judgment on the administration over these issues, along with its various other policies.