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Speculation grows that Abe will dissolve lower house in January

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, left, takes the podium during a House of Representatives plenary session on Sept. 27, 2016 as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks on. (Mainichi)

Speculation is growing within the political world that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could dissolve the House of Representatives in January for a snap general election.

The observations are being fueled by a decision by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Sept. 27 to hold a party convention in early March. Observers say that Abe is aiming to dissolve the lower chamber at the outset of a regular Diet session next January, before opposition parties including the Democratic Party (DP) are prepared for a general election to ensure that the ruling coalition will score a landslide victory, paving the way for the Abe administration to stay in power over an extended period.

Hiroyuki Hosoda, chairman of the LDP General Council, denied that the party decided to hold the convention on March 5 next year -- instead of in January when it is normally held -- in order to pave the way for the prime minister to dissolve the lower house in January. "The timing has no particular meaning," he told a news conference.

The LDP is considering extending the term of the LDP president. Prime Minister Abe's tenure as president of the party expires in September 2018. However, supporters for Abe are hoping that the prime minister will stay in power at least until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Former Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan told LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai in a meeting on Sept. 27 that he thought the next Olympics would be held under Prime Minister Abe. In response, Nikai said, "I think so, too."

However, many LDP members are cautious about extending the term of the party's president, which is limited to two three-year terms, totaling six years, under party regulations. Therefore, there is speculation that the LDP leadership has worked out a scenario in which the LDP would win a lower house election early next year, gain the public's confidence in the prime minister and officially decide to extend the term of the LDP leader at the party convention to allow Abe to stay in power over a longer period.

A source close to the government says, "I have the strong impression that the lower house will be dissolved early next year."

However, the prime minister's strategy for calling a general election is likely to be affected by work to change the demarcation of lower house single-seat constituencies as part of the rectification of a wide disparity in the value of votes between the most and least populated electoral districts.

A panel on the demarcation of lower chamber constituencies is scheduled to propose a specific plan to change the demarcation by May 27, 2017.

After receiving such a plan, the Diet needs to revise the Public Offices Election Act to reform the zoning of constituencies. Moreover, the government must secure a certain period of time to inform the public of the new demarcation before enforcing the amended law.

Since the number of LDP members of the lower chamber has increased as a result of election victories, the party could struggle to decide which candidates the party should field in which constituencies after changing the demarcation.

Moreover, the LDP's coalition partner Komeito attaches its priority to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election to be called in summer next year. To secure a sufficient interval between the lower house and metropolitan assembly elections, Komeito is eyeing the possibility that the next lower house election will be called at an early date. Komeito Secretary-General Yoshihisa Inoue told a party convention on Sept. 17, "Elections after fall next year will be held under new demarcation of constituencies. It is possible that a lower house election will be called under the current zoning."

However, opinions persist within the LDP that the prime minister does not have to hurriedly call a general election since the ruling coalition already has over two-thirds of seats in the lower chamber, enough to propose constitutional revisions. The ruling coalition and parties in favor of constitutional amendment also have two-thirds of seats in the House of Councillors. If the governing bloc were to lose two-thirds of seats in the lower house, it would adversely affect the prime minister's aim to revise the postwar Constitution while he is in office.

Abe's decision on whether to dissolve the lower house for a snap general election will also likely depend on whether he can make progress on the issue of the Russian-held Northern Territories off Hokkaido during two rounds of summit talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and whether he can speed up the "Abenomics" economic policy mix.

Opposition parties are growing wary of Prime Minister Abe's possible dissolution of the lower chamber at an early date.

DP Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda said his party is preparing for a general election. "The lower house is always a battlefield. We'd like to prepare for an election with a sense of tension," he told reporters on Sept. 27.

In the July upper house race, election cooperation between the DP and three other opposition parties including the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) led to certain achievements but allowed the ruling coalition to score an overwhelming victory.

The DP faces two challenges toward the next lower house election -- regaining the public's confidence in the party and building a united front again with other opposition parties.

DP acting leader Jun Azumi told a party meeting on Sept. 26, "The lower house could be dissolved unless we kept our guard up."

The JCP intends to launch consultations on election cooperation with the DP and other opposition parties at an early date.

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