Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gambles his political future on strong showing at snap election
Abe has served a total of almost six years as prime minister and could serve until 2021 if re-elected as party leader next year
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is betting he can crush a weak opposition in next month’s election. The margin of victory may determine whether his ruling party replaces him in 2018.
Abe announced on Monday he would dissolve parliament later this week, more than a year before its term expires. He framed the election as a vote on his hardline stance against North Korea and his plans to use revenue from an upcoming sales-tax hike to fund an US$18 billion economic package aimed at tackling the challenges of an ageing society.
“An election in these circumstances will also be a test of confidence in me,” Abe said.
Voting will be set for October 22, according to three people with knowledge of his ruling coalition’s plans.
Abe’s approval ratings have climbed as North Korea has fired missiles over Japan, focusing the public on security issues instead of conflict-of-interest scandals that have damaged his image.
While polls show his party well ahead of an opposition in disarray, he still needs to win big: anything short of the two-thirds majority his coalition controls could prompt his ruling Liberal Democratic Party to oust him in a leadership vote next year.
Abe has served a total of almost six years as prime minister: he had a truncated term a decade ago, and returned to power in a landslide in 2012. He could serve until 2021 if re-elected as party leader next year, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.
“Depending on whether he loses a lot of seats, there may be stronger calls from within the party for him to be replaced next year,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. “But a lot depends on how the economy and his own public support rate fare.”
The ruling coalition currently controls 68 per cent of seats in the 475-member lower house, including 288 for the LDP and 35 for its coalition partner Komeito, according to the parliamentary website. The total number of seats is set to be cut to 465 in the next election as part of a reform aimed at reducing the excessive weight given to rural votes under the current system.
While polls show his LDP will easily defeat the main opposition Democratic Party, which is riddled with infighting, one wild card is Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. Just hours before Abe’s press briefing, Koike announced that she would lead a new political group called the “Party of Hope”.
Asked about the challenge in an interview with TV Asahi, Abe called her a “formidable opponent in elections”. LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said separately that her new party would have a great effect on the election.
Koike, a former newsreader and environment minister who became the capital’s first-ever female governor, said her main policies included empowering women, improving transparency in government and cutting the number of lawmakers and their pay. She used a similar good-governance message to crush Abe’s party in a local Tokyo election in July.
“We need a real force for reform,” she told reporters in Tokyo on Monday. “By making my position clear, I hope to add energy to the movement.”
A poll published in the Nikkei newspaper on Monday said Abe’s LDP received 44 per cent of support, compared to 8 per cent for both Koike’s group and the Democratic Party. Another survey by Kyodo News published on Sunday showed the LDP with a more than three-to-one margin against its closest rival, with 42 per cent still undecided.
The public discontent over cronyism allegations against Abe may prompt more people to vote for Koike’s party, according to Ichita Yamamoto, who has served as a cabinet office minister under Abe.
“He’s risking a serious backlash from the public,” Ichita said in an interview with Bloomberg last week. “We shouldn’t get too relaxed.”
Shigeru Ishiba, who lost to Abe in the 2012 race to lead the LDP and later served in his cabinet, expressed his own concerns about the election in a meeting with members of his faction last week.
Many members of the public don’t see any reason to hold the snap poll, creating a need to explain carefully, he said.
Ishiba also emphasised that Abe should avoid campaigning on ideas that haven’t been approved by the party. The veteran lawmaker is against the way Abe wants to achieve his long-standing goal of changing Japan’s pacifist constitution in place since the second world war.
“Party democracy cannot be skipped over,” he said.
Ishiba is a probable challenger for Abe next year, along with Fumio Kishida, who left the cabinet for a role as party policy chief last month. Another potential rival is in his cabinet: Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda has openly said she plans to challenge him for the party presidency next year.
Abe may already be getting ready to leave next year whatever happens in the election due to the scandals hanging over him, according to Steven Reed, professor of political science at Chuo University.
“Abe himself is not a positive factor,” Reed said. “If he gets his constitutional reform through, he can go home happy.”