Japan PM Abe eyes snap election in October

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to journalists upon his arrival at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday. (EPA photo)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has told a senior ruling party lawmaker that he is considering holding a general election in October, high-ranking government officials said Sunday.

Mr Abe told the lawmaker he may dissolve the House of Representatives at an early stage of an extra Diet session to be convened on Sept 28, the officials said.

The prime minister is likely to make a final decision on dissolving the lower house after returning to Tokyo from his trip to New York through Sept 22 to attend the UN General Assembly session. He will leave Japan on Monday afternoon.

If Mr Abe dissolves the lower chamber on Sept 28, the general election and three pending by-elections will likely take place either Oct 22 or Oct 29, according to government sources.

Another possibility is that Mr Abe will dissolve the lower house after the by-elections. In that case, he will likely dissolve the lower chamber in November and the general election will be held the following month, the sources said.

The prime minister is believed to be leaning toward gambling on a snap election as opposition parties appear unprepared, with the main Democratic Party suffering a string of lawmaker departures after Seiji Maehara took the helm of the party earlier this month.

Mr Abe is considering a snap election amid a recovery in public support for his Cabinet. After sinking to around 36% in mid-July following a spate of scandals, the approval rating rose to the mid-40s in August and stayed flat this month, according to Kyodo News surveys.

Criticism from opposition parties was swift. Referring to cronyism allegations embroiling Mr Abe over the opening of a new veterinary university department and the discount purchase of public land for an elementary school, Mr Maehara told reporters, “We can only say he is trying to avoid a grilling in the Diet and protect himself.”

Also touching on tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, Mr Maehara said, “Does he really mean to create a political vacuum, setting aside people’s lives and properties?”

“Although it would be a selfish dissolution, we will resolutely accept it,” he added.

Lawmakers close to Tokyo Gov Yuriko Koike are still at the stage of preparing to launch a new party. Independent lawmaker Masaru Wakasa, a close aide to Mr Koike, brushed aside the potential impact of Mr Abe’s general election strategy, saying on a TV programme Sunday, “We have been preparing steadily on the premise that the upcoming by-elections could turn into a general election.”

The possibility of a snap election, reported by the nation’s major news media on Sunday, has scrambled opposition party lawmakers into action. The leaders of the Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party had planned to hold a meeting on Sunday afternoon but cancelled it in order to focus on their respective preparations for the general election, a Democratic Party lawmaker said.

The leaders of the three opposition parties had planned to discuss whether to form a united front during the extra Diet session. “As we have dissolution (of the lower house) ahead, the environment has changed. It won’t have any meaning if we discuss an alliance in parliament now,” the lawmaker said.

According to sources close to the matter, Mr Abe has instructed members of his Liberal Democratic Party to analyse the situation in electoral constituencies across the country instead of just the three constituencies in Aomori, Niigata and Ehime prefectures where the by-elections are scheduled to be held in October.

“Dissolving the lower house is the prime minister’s prerogative. We must accept it no matter when it happens,” said Koichi Hanyuda, a lawmaker close to Abe, during a TV programme on Sunday. But he added that if Mr Abe decides to call an election, he will explain his reasons to the public.

Mr Abe dissolved the lower house in November 2014 and led the ruling coalition to a sweeping victory in the subsequent election in December.

Wataru Takeshita, general council chairman of the LDP, told a party convention Saturday in the western Japan city of Tokushima, “All lower house members are beginning to feel that (the general election) will not be far ahead,” given that nearly three years have already passed in the four-year term of the current lower house.

Another senior LDP lawmaker speculated that if the ruling coalition wins, the Abe government may be able to dodge further grilling over the cronyism allegations.

The secretaries general and election strategy committee heads of the LDP and the Komeito party will meet Monday to discuss how to prepare for the upcoming election.

Mr Abe’s Cabinet approval ratings fell sharply after the cronyism scandals and a huge setback for the LDP in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July.

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