Sep 17, 2017
TOKYO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to dissolve the lower house later this month, with Oct. 22 emerging as a likely date for the general election, senior government and ruling party officials said Sunday.
Abe conveyed his plan to seek an early general election to Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the Komeito party, the junior coalition partner of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party. The prime minister phoned Yamaguchi while the latter was in Russia, according to a senior ruling party official.
Abe has apparently leaned toward gambling on a snap election as approval ratings for his Cabinet are recovering after a series of scandals involving ministers, including cronyism allegations leveled against the prime minister himself, and as the main opposition Democratic Party remains weak and is reeling from a string of lawmaker departures.
A House of Representatives election must be held by December 2018, when the four-year terms of current lower house lawmakers expire. But the prime minister can dissolve the chamber and call a general election at any time.
Abe told Yamaguchi over the phone that he may dissolve the lower house at an early stage of an extra Diet session to be convened on Sept. 28, according to the senior government official.
The prime minister is expected to meet with Yamaguchi on Monday to discuss the matter before heading to New York to attend the upcoming U.N. General Assembly session.
During a meeting with Ryu Shionoya, chairman of the LDP Election Strategy Committee, on Sunday night, Abe suggested he would make a final decision on whether to dissolve the lower house once he returns from New York on Sept. 22, according to a person with knowledge of their conversation.
LDP and Komeito lawmakers are gearing up for a general election on the assumption that voting will take place on Oct. 22, with official campaigning starting on Oct. 10. But they have not ruled out the possibility of voting on Oct. 29, in which case official campaigning would start on Oct. 17.
Three by-elections currently slated for Oct. 22 would be replaced by general election contests.
During election campaigning, Abe is likely to stress the need for strong government to counter the North Korean nuclear and missile threat. Abe's controversial drive to amend the pacifist Constitution is also likely to become one of the main issues in the election.
Abe's political clout appeared to be on the wane as public support for his Cabinet fell sharply and the LDP suffered a huge setback in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July. But poll figures have recently been recovering.
In Kyodo News surveys, the approval rating, which was around 36 percent in mid-July, rose to the mid-40s in August and stayed flat this month.
With major news media reporting the possibility of a general election as soon as next month, criticism from opposition parties came fast.
Referring to cronyism allegations embroiling Abe over the opening of a new veterinary university department and the discount purchase of public land for an elementary school, Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara told reporters on Sunday, "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, 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 Koike, brushed aside the potential impact of Abe's general election strategy, saying on a TV program Sunday, "We have been preparing steadily on the premise that the upcoming by-elections could turn into a general election."
Opposition party lawmakers also scrambled 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, Abe has instructed LDP members to analyze 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 on Oct. 22.
"Dissolving the lower house is the prime minister's prerogative. We must accept it no matter when it happens," said Koichi Hagiuda, a lawmaker close to Abe, during a TV program on Sunday. But he added that if Abe decides to call an election, he will explain his reasons to the public.
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 a 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.
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