One cannot help but wonder whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sufficient reason to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election at this time.
The prime minister officially announced on Sept. 25 that he will dissolve the lower chamber at the outset of the extraordinary Diet session, which convenes on Sept. 28. Even though he reshuffled his Cabinet just this past August, Abe will not deliver a policy speech or have a question-and-answer session with top officials of political parties. This is an extremely rare move.
Prime Minister Abe explained that he is calling a general election because he has decided to re-examine how increased revenue from the consumption tax will be used when the consumption tax rate is raised from the current 8 percent to 10 percent in autumn 2019, such as diverting part of the revenue to make education free of charge. Abe is arguing that he needs a public mandate to make such a change in his tax policy.
Abe called a 2014 general election because his government decided to postpone a consumption tax increase. However, the issue did not become a point of contention between ruling and opposition parties then, either. A review of the use of increased revenue from the consumption tax has already been proposed by the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP). Therefore, the prime minister’s explanation that he needs to call an election to ask the public if they support the proposal is hardly convincing.
The proposed change in how consumption tax revenue will be used will delay the rehabilitation of Japan’s debt-ridden state finances. The prime minister admitted at the news conference that the move would make it difficult for the government to achieve its goal of turning the primary balance in the state budget into the black by fiscal 2020. But he also said he “will not lower the flag of fiscal reconstruction.” He avoided elaborating on how he would rehabilitate state finances, saying he would consider the matter later. His statements indicate that he first decided to dissolve the lower house and subsequently looked for reasons to justify his decision.
Prime Minister Abe added, “The dissolution is also aimed at overcoming difficulties the nation faces, such as the North Korean issue, as well as the declining birth rate and aging of the population.”
However, one cannot help but suspect that Abe’s real reason for calling a general election is to bolster his power base so that he can remain in his position until autumn 2021 and achieve his long-cherished goal of revising the postwar Constitution. Dissolution of the lower house is his attempt to overcome the roadblocks that threaten to prevent him from reaching that goal.
After reshuffling his Cabinet in August, Prime Minister Abe told a news conference that his favoritism scandals involving two school operators — Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution — “caused public distrust,” bowing deeply.
And yet, he will not hold a question-and-answer session in the Diet apparently because he fears that doing so will once again call the public’s attention to these issues. Under the circumstances, Abe cannot avoid criticism that his decision to dissolve the lower house is aimed at covering up the scandals.
Moreover, the prime minister said that “elections are the largest forum for debate in a democracy,” as if to say there is no need for Diet sessions. His attempts to shift focus away from what’s truly important are shocking.
Regarding the fact that the election will be called amid rising tensions over the North Korean situation, the prime minister said the election schedule “mustn’t be affected by North Korea’s provocations.” This leaves us with the impression that he is taking advantage of the North Korean crisis to call an election.
Abe also emphasized that his government “can’t carry out drastic reforms or promote diplomacy without the public’s confidence.” What he should be doing first, then, is to dispel the public’s distrust caused by the Moritomo and Kake scandals by providing a thorough explanation. Abe is mistaken if he thinks he can regain the public’s confidence as long as the ruling coalition, comprising the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito, wins the election.
At the news conference, Abe made no mention of constitutional amendment. The prime minister had originally placed priority on proposing constitutional revisions at next year’s regular Diet session over a lower house election. However, his favoritism scandals caused his influence within the ruling coalition to decline considerably and Komeito began to voice strong opposition to revising the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9. Fearing he may be unable to initiate constitutional revisions under these circumstances, the prime minister appears to have decided to attempt a breakthrough by dissolving the lower chamber.
The “Kibo no To” (Hope party), a new political party that Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike will lead, is believed to be in favor of constitutional revisions. Prime Minister Abe may be under the impression that even if the LDP loses seats in the lower house, the LDP can cooperate with the new party in amending the supreme law.
However, Koike is trying to set the new party apart from the LDP, criticizing Abe for calling a general election without a cause. It remains to be seen whether the new party will cooperate with the LDP in revising the Constitution as the prime minister hopes it will.
Abe’s decision to call a general election also hints at his belief that as long as the LDP wins the majority of seats in the chamber, he will likely be elected to a third term as president of the LDP in the party’s leadership election in autumn next year.
The prime minister also apparently believes that the governing bloc can win the election because opposition parties are not fully prepared for the poll. However, that all comes down to the voters.
In past elections, Prime Minister Abe emphasized his economic policies, but once the ruling bloc won the polls, he took advantage of the coalition’s overwhelming majority in the legislature to enact unrelated laws, such as new security legislation, which were hardly mentioned during the election campaigns.
During the campaign for the upcoming lower house election, Abe will certainly emphasize slogans such as “productivity revolution” and “human resources development revolution.” What will be called into question in the lower house race are Abe’s politics as a whole, including his political techniques.
Nearly five years have passed since Abe, who had previously served as prime minister between 2006 and 2007, returned to power in December 2012. As the Abe government’s arrogance and problems resulting from his predominance have now come to the fore, the pros and cons of allowing Abe to stay in power for four more years will be a focal point in the next election. Japan is at a major crossroads as it now faces various policy challenges, including constitutional revisions, security, economic and fiscal policies as well as social security.