TOKYO — As Japan’s government enjoys sustained support, political circles are abuzz with speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will gamble on calling a lower-house election to coincide with this summer’s upper-house race.
The 64-year-old may be tempted into a double election, with his Cabinet approval rate above 50 percent according to the latest Kyodo News poll. Additionally, opposition parties are fractured and a nationwide feel-good factor prevails following the enthronement of Japan’s new emperor this month.
Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party secured big wins on the last two double-up occasions, in the 1980s, by fully mobilizing its vote-gathering machines.
However, the clock is ticking for Abe as the election for the House of Councillors — held every three years — is due in a few months, possibly in late July.
A decision may hinge on whether Abe can find a legitimate reason to dissolve the more powerful House of Representatives for a snap election, which otherwise does not have to be held until 2021.
While Abe has repeatedly denied he is thinking about a double poll, his close aides have been elusive.
“We won’t oppose if the prime minister decides to do so. We’re always prepared (for an election) as if we are in a battlefield,” LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai said in a speech in Tokyo on Wednesday.
However, Nikai said it will be “utterly foolish” to seek a public mandate over the planned consumption tax hike in October, and “difficult” to go to the polls in the hope of injecting fresh momentum to realize Abe’s goal of amending the pacifist Constitution.
Still, political and economic experts believe those two issues could prompt the prime minister to act.
Speculation of a double election emerged in April when Koichi Hagiuda, the LDP’s executive acting secretary general, hinted at a delay in the tax rise — from 8 percent to 10 percent — depending on the Bank of Japan’s business sentiment survey for June. He also said the increase would likely require a public mandate.
The government has maintained the tax rise, already delayed twice, will this time go ahead as planned, unless Japan’s economy suffers a shock on the scale of the global financial crisis triggered by the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
Further postponement is largely seen to be difficult because the extra revenue has been earmarked for expanding childcare support.
But the economy may be turning a corner after experiencing, since December 2012, what is seen as the longest post-World War II expansion, with an escalating U.S.-China trade war adding to concern.
The economy unexpectedly grew an annualized 2.1 percent in the January to March period, according to government data released Monday. But a closer look at preliminary gross domestic product readings revealed weak domestic demand, leaving room for the government to ponder another delay to the tax hike.
“Talk of a delay will continue,” said Hideo Kumano, executive chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, even though the GDP data did not raise a “red flag” over the tax increase.
Prime minister since 2012, Abe has a track record of weighing the possibility of a simultaneous election in connection with the tax hike, according to sources familiar with the matter.
In 2016, Abe pushed back the tax plan to October 2019 from April 2017, citing uncertainty in the global economy. Abe at that time considered dissolving the lower house as an upper-house race was approaching, but eventually held back, according to the sources.
A snap election can also serve as a chance to realize his ambition to push ahead with the revision of the Constitution, which conservatives often decry as a product of the U.S.-led occupation after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Even though Abe has repeatedly expressed his desire to put into force a new supreme law by 2020 through rewriting the war-renouncing Article 9, parliamentary debate has generated little progress.
The public is divided over the issue, with the latest Kyodo News survey this month showing 40.1 percent supporting Abe’s 2020 constitutional revision goal, and 43.9 percent opposed.
Noting that Abe — whose LDP presidency ends in September 2021 — is running out of time to achieve constitutional amendment, the prime minister may think the “time is ripe” to seek voters’ backing for this, said Hiroshi Hirano, a professor at Gakushuin University.
“Nobody would say it is not a legitimate reason for holding double elections,” said Hirano, well-versed in political psychology.
The professor added the LDP and its Komeito party coalition ally may not have to be afraid of going to the public on the issue, as opposition parties are “so weak” and “unable to join forces.”
“Securing two-thirds majorities (in both houses) may be within reach,” he said.
Amending the Constitution requires two-thirds majorities in both houses, and simple-majority support in a national referendum. The ruling coalition holds a two-thirds majority in the lower house, but needs opposition support to reach that threshold in the upper house.
Abe has given little inkling of his thinking, but Ichiro Ozawa, a former LDP lawmaker and one-time power broker in Japanese politics, pointed to the likelihood of a double election, in a speech in Tokyo on Tuesday.
“Because we, opposition parties, are so powerless, the master of kantei (the prime minister’s office) should be feeling that he can’t wait to dissolve the lower house,” Ozawa, a lower-house member who recently joined the fledgling Democratic Party for the People, said.
The Kyodo News survey showed that, in the upper-house election, 38.2 percent would vote for the LDP in the proportional representation section, against 11.2 percent saying they would side with the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
Ozawa also warned at a press conference in Iwate Prefecture on Sunday that Abe “takes advantage of anything as a cause” to win elections.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, sent ripples through political circles this month by saying that opposition parties’ possible submission of a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet can also prompt Abe to call a snap election.
“A single day is enough to create a legitimate cause for a lower-house dissolution,” LDP Secretary General Nikai said Wednesday.