The 150-day regular Diet session ended on June 1. The session was regarded as a venue where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's policies were to be thoroughly scrutinized as the summer House of Councillors election is drawing near, but few substantial achievements were made.
Prior to the end of the session, four opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, jointly submitted a no-confidence motion against the Abe Cabinet to the House of Representatives. In the motion, the opposition parties criticized the enactment of the security-related legislation last autumn, which has opened the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, as a serious challenge to constitutionalism. Moreover, the motion pointed out that "Abenomics," the economic policy mix promoted by the Abe government, only served to widen the income gap. However, the ruling coalition, which has an overwhelming majority in the chamber, voted down the motion.
One of the reasons behind the fact that the regular session lacked in-depth debate was speculation that Prime Minister Abe might dissolve the lower house to call a general election simultaneously with the upcoming upper house race over the postponement of the consumption tax increase.
There is no denying that the ruling coalition was exploring the possibility of such double election. The convening of the regular session on Jan. 4, immediately after the New Year holiday season and earlier than usual, was widely viewed as a sign that the prime minister might dissolve the lower chamber at the end of the Diet session on June 1 to call a general election to coincide with the upper house race expected on July 10.
In March, Toshihiro Nikai, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party General Council, pointed to the possibility of a double election. There were observations that Prime Minister Abe decided to introduce a reduced sales tax rate for foodstuffs when the indirect tax is raised from the current 8 percent to 10 percent despite stiff opposition from the Finance Ministry in a bid to put junior coalition partner Komeito under a debt of gratitude and persuade the reluctant party to accept the double election.
Behind such moves is the prime minister's enthusiasm about revising the postwar Constitution. Constitutional amendment can be initiated through a concurring vote of at least two-thirds of all members of each house of the Diet before holding a national referendum. Since the ruling coalition has over two-thirds of seats in the lower house, the ruling coalition and other parties in favor of constitutional revisions need to secure two-thirds of seats in the upper chamber to propose such an amendment. Moreover, the governing bloc attempted to drive a wedge among opposition parties working on forming a united front in the upper house election by also calling a lower house race in which voters are supposed to choose a political party that will take the reins of government.
If the prime minister were to dissolve the lower house, however, it would be a rehash of the last 2014 general election, in which the governing bloc used the postponement of the sales tax increase as a means to stay in power. It would be unreasonable to use a lower house election as a means to win the upcoming upper house election.
Legislators from both ruling and opposition parties became restless amid speculation that the double election might be called, adversely affecting Diet deliberations.
Only about 1 1/2 years have passed since the last lower house election was held. Both ruling and opposition parties are now supposed to cooperate in the Diet in making policy achievements. However, speculation that the lower house might be dissolved poured cold water on efforts to seek a compromise between ruling and opposition blocs. In particular, junior legislators tended to prioritize their preparations for elections over policy debate.
Furthermore, the ruling coalition avoided being deeply involved in key issues. Ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact and relevant bills are vital as part of the Abe Cabinet's economic growth strategy. However, the ruling coalition easily gave up settling the issue after opposition parties criticized the government over the information disclosure on the pact. The ruling coalition deserves criticism that it showed special consideration to agricultural industry organizations while exploring the possibility of the double election.
It was decided that the double election would not be called after Abe rejected Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso's advice that the prime minister dissolve the lower chamber. A large amount of energy in the Diet was wasted on six months of political maneuvering.