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Abe looks at best timing for snap election in bid to keep tight grip on power

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to look at the best possible timing to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap general election in 2017 in an attempt to keep his tight grip on power.

Abe has built a stable government over four years since his second administration was installed. However, the fruits of his flagship "Abenomics" policy mix will be tested from now on and his political strategy based on whether or when to call a snap poll will also affect debate on revising the Constitution, which will mark the 70th anniversary of its enforcement this year. Therefore, this year will be a crucial period for the prime minister who is keen to ensure a long-term government.

Prime Minister Abe said at an executive meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Dec. 20, "Next year, we must always prepare ourselves as if we were in a battlefield." In his New Year's comments released on Jan. 1, he said, "We will embark on a full scale mission to build a new nation while looking ahead to 2020 and beyond." He suggested his willingness to remain in power until the opening of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The LPD's presidential election is scheduled to be held in the autumn of 2018. Whether Abe can dissolve the powerful lower house at the most effective timing so as to maintain his centripetal force holds the key to whether he will be able to win a third term as LDP president.

Some officials within the LDP are talking about the possibility of Abe reshuffling his Cabinet and dissolving the lower house in the autumn of this year. A generally held view is that Abe will dissolve the lower chamber in the autumn or thereafter and by the beginning of 2018 at the latest. That's because Abe has a busy schedule with a key political agenda he has to handle by the summer of this year.

While he plans to visit four countries including Indonesia and Australia in mid-January, Abe will also explore the possibility of meeting with Donald Trump who will be sworn in as U.S. president on Jan. 20. Abe vowed to visit Russia at an early date to try to make progress in the long-running dispute over the Northern Territories. Thus, Abe will continue to show his stance to place emphasis on diplomacy.

The most important issues to be deliberated in the upcoming regular session of the Diet due to open as early as Jan. 20, are the enactments of the state budget for fiscal 2017, a special law to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate and a seat reduction plan for the lower house electoral districts. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, to which the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito attaches importance, will be held in the summer. Some LDP members are talking about Abe dissolving the lower house in February, but a dominant view holds that it is difficult for the prime minister to do so before fulfilling his political and diplomatic schedule.

Nonetheless, economic conditions will greatly affect Abe's decision on whether to move ahead to dissolve the lower chamber. During the previous lower house election in 2014 and the House of Councillors election in July 2016, Abe made the continuation of Abenomics as a point of contention. Therefore, the fruits of Abenomics will be called into question in the next lower house race. Although Abe's government positions work-style reforms as a centerpiece of its policies, it is not clear these will work to boost the economy. An LDP source said, "If the economy were to worsen, he could lose the timing to dissolve the lower house." If he fails to dissolve the lower chamber in the autumn or the beginning of next year, Abe would increasingly be put at bay as the terms of his LDP presidency and lower house legislators are set to expire in September 2018 and December 2018, respectively.

Even if Abe does dissolve the lower house, he will run the risk of his party losing seats. Considering efforts by four opposition parties such as the Democratic Party (DP) to cooperate in the election, there is a possibility that the LDP will end up having fewer seats than it currently holds. Some critics say the LDP will lose 20 to 40 seats under current circumstances and if the LDP loses 40 seats, the prime minister could be held responsible for that.

Meanwhile, as this year marks the 70th anniversary of the enforcement of the Constitution, Prime Minister Abe wants to accelerate debate on constitutional revisions during the upcoming regular Diet session. But if the LDP were to try to press aggressively for debate while keeping open the possibility of Abe dissolving the lower house, it would draw fire from the DP, Komeito and other parties. Depending on the outcome of the next lower house election, debate on revising the Constitution could further stagnate thereafter. If the LDP suffers a crushing defeat in the election, the number of seats held by the pro-constitutional amendment camp could fall short of a two-third majority it currently holds in both chambers that are needed to initiate constitutional amendment. How he will manage to dissolve the lower house without losing any seats will affect the prime minister's future.

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