Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision on dissolving the House of Representatives for a general election may become the key political issue after the House of Councillors election (campaign starts on June 22, voting on July 7). With the consumption tax increase postponed to October 2019, Abe now has fewer constraints in making this decision. Opinions are divided in the ruling parties with regard to dissolving the Lower House at an early date for the sake of winning the Upper House election.
Even though Abe has given up the idea of holding a double Upper and Lower House election this time, he still has the next Lower House election on his mind.
In a campaign speech in Yokkaichi City, Mie Prefecture on June 10, Abe stated: “The Democratic Party (DP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) are also cooperating in the single-seat districts (of the Lower House). The JCP advocates the disbanding of the Self-Defense Forces, which is working very hard right now for the rescue and relief operations in the Kumamoto earthquakes. We cannot afford to be defeated by a force like that.”
These remarks were meant to drive a wedge into possible DP-JCP cooperation in the next Lower House election because these two parties are now working closely in the upcoming Upper House election. Since Abe used the word “single-seat district,” it is reckoned that “this is an indication that the Prime Minister is looking for a good opportunity to dissolve the Lower House,” according to a senior Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) official.
If the consumption tax increase were to take place in April 2017 as scheduled, it would have been difficult to plunge into dissolution in 2017. However, with the consumption tax hike delay, Abe now has a “free hand” (according to an aide) in choosing the right time to dissolve the Lower House.
There are several conceivable timetables for dissolving the Lower House.
The earliest one would be end of 2016 or early 2017. The extraordinary Diet session this summer will deal with important items on the legislative agenda, such as a supplementary budget featuring a major economic stimulation package, ratification of the TPP agreement, and enactment of related bills. If these are opposed by the opposition, there might be an opportunity to dissolve the Lower House toward the end of this year. Furthermore, if progress is made in the negotiations for the Northern Territories issue and the Japan-Russia peace treaty during the planned visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin late this year, dissolution may come at the beginning of the regular Diet session in January 2017 to bank on this achievement.
Certain ruling party members are not keen on this timing because dissolution will come at a time when the current Lower House members will have only served for about two years in their four-year term. The same thing had happened in 2014.
Spring 2017, when the FY17 budget containing concrete measures to implement the Abenomics policies is expected to be enacted, could be another possible timing for dissolving the Lower House. However, Komeito, which attaches great importance to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election taking place close to this period, is likely to resist this schedule.
Another option is the second half of 2018. Based on a victory in the Upper House election this summer, if conditions become favorable for submitting motions for constitutional revision and holding a national referendum, Abe may seek the people’s verdict on his “long-cherished dream.” It is thought that if he is able to win in the Lower House election, the groundwork will be laid for extending his term as LDP president beyond September 2018.
Dissolution of the Lower House is regarded as the prime minister’s “trump card,” which is used as an effective means to strengthen his leadership. An aide to Abe says: “One option is for him to keep threatening to dissolve the Lower House until his term of office nearly expires, in order to retain the initiative in steering the political situation.” (Slightly abridged)