Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the House of Representatives on Sept. 28 to call a general election. The powerful chamber was disbanded at the outset of an extraordinary Diet session, extinguishing any chance of Diet debate following a Cabinet reshuffle in August.
Abe said he dissolved the chamber to overcome difficulties the nation faces, citing the tense North Korean situation and changes in the way increased revenue from a pending consumption tax hike will be used. However, he has failed to provide any convincing explanation of why he needs to seek a fresh mandate on these issues now.
Still, points of contention during the general election campaigning, including the way the prime minister dissolved the lower chamber, are clear: Evaluating the Abe administration launched in December 2012, and the pros and cons of allowing his government to stay on.
The picture of the coming clash between the ruling coalition and opposition parties changed dramatically only three days after Abe officially announced his intention to dissolve the lower house.
Kibo no To (Party of Hope), a political party led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, was launched. The realignment of opposition parties is rapidly progressing as the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) has decided to merge into the new party.
Since the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition returned to power in 2012, Abe has won multiple Diet elections, bolstering his political predominance. The prime minister has taken advantage of this to implement hawkish policy measures, including security-related legislation and the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, as well as revisions to the Act for Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds to criminalize "preparatory acts to commit organized crimes such as terrorism" by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy.
However, this situation is not attributable to active public support for the prime minister or the LDP.
The DP and its predecessor the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) failed to regain support the party lost as a result of misrule during the DPJ's stint in power from 2009 to 2012, and has been unable to garner support from Abe critics.
Moreover, the prime minister emphasized during past election campaigns that his government prioritized economic policies, but then returned to a hawkish policy line once he won. He is using such slogans as a "productivity revolution" and a "human resource development revolution" for the upcoming general election. What's more, this is the third time Abe has stated the consumption tax hike issue -- postponements and revenue use -- should be reviewed just before a national election.
The LDP suffered an historic defeat in the July Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election because of public distrust sparked by the Abe administration's arrogance as displayed in his response to favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen, and Okayama-based Kake Educational Institution.
The fact that Abe skipped a news conference immediately after dissolving the lower house can be taken as a sign that he makes light of explaining the problem to the public. This political style will be called into question along with the Abe government's achievements over the past five years.
The upcoming election will have an enormous influence on the medium- and long-term direction of Japan's politics.
If the LDP maintains its predominance, Abe will likely be elected as party president for a third three-year term in autumn 2018, likely keeping him in the premiership for that time. If that happens, Abe will have been in power for nearly 10 years, including his first stint as prime minister for a year from 2006 to 2007.
The outcome of the election will also have an impact on the prospects of constitutional revisions, the prime minister's long-cherished goal. If he can remain in power for four more years from now, he can reset the road map to constitutional amendment, which was set back by the LDP's defeat in the Tokyo metro assembly election.
Prime Minister Abe has already proposed to add a clause stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces to war-renouncing Article 9 of the supreme law.
We wonder why he never mentioned constitutional revision during his Sept. 25 news conference to announce he would dissolve the lower chamber, though it is obviously his greatest goal.
Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and Kibo no To have expressed enthusiasm about revising the postwar Constitution. It is the Diet's prerogative to initiate constitutional revisions by a two-thirds majority of all members of each chamber. Abe should explain the specific vision for constitutional amendment he is pursuing.
Opposition parties also bear grave responsibilities. Their ability to garner support from voters critical of the Abe administration will be tested through the general election.
Moves by DP legislators to leave their party and join Koike's new party were already gaining momentum before the election call. DP leader Seiji Maehara explained that his sudden proposal to merge with the latter party was an effort to reap the greater reward of unseating the Abe administration rather than achieve the empty goal of maintaining his and the DP's reputation. A realignment of the main opposition was inevitable, as the party was on the verge of collapse.
There is a wide gap in philosophy between the DP, a centrist liberal party, and Kibo no To, a self-proclaimed reform-minded conservative force. Koike is poised to demand that DP candidates who seek Kibo no To endorsement in the general election respect the new party's security and constitutional revision policies. Therefore, there is no guarantee that all DP candidates seeking to run on a Kibo ticket can win the new party's backing.
It is necessary to integrate opposition parties. However, if an opposition party is to seek to join hands with others at the expense of its own philosophy and basic policies, the party will never gain voter support. The DP should provide a thorough explanation and go through an appropriate procedure for merging into Kibo no To.
Japan faces numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. For one, Abe emphasizes that the pros and cons of continuing to put pressure on Pyongyang is a point of contention. However, what is important is specific diplomatic and security policy that can realistically deal with the North Korean crisis.
The national and local governments' debts have surpassed a quadrillion yen, and social security spending will snowball beyond 2025 when baby-boomers will all be at least 75 years old. Amid the rapid aging of the population, both ruling and opposition parties should have debate on a vision for achieving a sustainable social security system.
The public's rising interest in the upcoming election should be welcomed, even if it is due to Koike's political theatrics. However, it would be wrong for ruling and opposition parties to compete by proposing populist policies. Political parties have a duty to clearly explain even policy measures that could be disadvantageous to the public. All political parties should draw up and unveil their campaign pledges for constructive discussions.