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Speculation swirls over timing of lower house dissolution, snap election

Japan's House of Representatives is seen in this June 8, 2017 file photo. (Mainichi)

As lawmakers currently serving in the House of Representatives have a little over 15 months before their terms expire, rumors have been swirling around within both ruling and opposition parties over when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will dissolve the lower house for a snap general election. The Mainichi Shimbun has laid out three possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Lower house dissolution in September to avoid by-elections

The earliest timing that Abe could dissolve the lower chamber of the Diet appears to be at the beginning of an extraordinary Diet session scheduled to convene on Sept. 25. This potential plan is aimed to avoid three lower house by-elections on Oct. 22 in the Aomori No. 4 constituency, Niigata No. 5 and Ehime No. 3 electoral districts. All three by-elections were triggered by deaths of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) incumbents and Abe has instructed relevant officials of his party to win all the races.

However, the Ehime No. 3 constituency is located near the Ehime Prefecture city of Imabari, the location of a new veterinary school planned by school operator Kake Educational Institution, which is at the center of a favoritism scandal involving the prime minister and other legislators. The by-election in this district, therefore, is expected to be an all-out clash between the ruling coalition and opposition parties.

Furthermore, the ruling party cannot be optimistic about the Niigata No. 5 constituency race as an LDP candidate lost a seat in the Niigata electoral district in the House of Councillors election last year to an independent backed by four opposition parties.

A senior official of the ruling coalition candidly expressed the sense of crisis, saying, "Nothing damages the government more than losing in an election that could have been won."

The theory of an early breakup of the lower house is based on the assumption that while a by-election defeat stands out because usually only a few such races are held on the same day, one single defeat in a full lower chamber election with 289 seats up for grabs under the single-seat constituency system can be buried.

Since the approval rating for the Abe Cabinet has slightly improved after the Cabinet and LDP leadership reshuffle in August, and with the victory of a ruling coalition-backed candidate in the Ibaraki gubernatorial race the same month, some lower house legislators have started preparing for an early dissolution of the lower chamber. A former Cabinet member who is close to Abe told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I have already prepared posters for an election."

If the prime minister disbands the lower house at the outset of the scheduled extraordinary session, however, he would have to shelve the Cabinet's flagship policies such as "work-style reforms." Moreover, if the LDP ends up losing seats in the lower chamber as a result of a general election, forces in favor of constitutional amendment could lose a two-thirds majority in the chamber that is necessary to initiate a referendum over constitutional revisions.

Meanwhile, Abe's unifying force could lose momentum within his party if LDP members took Abe's move to go ahead with the dissolution at an early date as a way to keep the current government longer in power, even if that means abandoning constitutional amendments, unless the LDP maintains its current force of nearly 300 seats in the lower house after the election. This being a possibility, some within the ruling coalition expect a lower chamber dissolution at the end of the extraordinary Diet session or at the beginning of an ordinary session next year, while placing priority on the three by-elections and achieving certain levels of results in domestic and diplomatic affairs.

On the other hand, there are some members within the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito who approve of a lower chamber breakup at an early date as the party is wary of constitutional amendment debate moving forward too fast.

Moves by opposition forces will also affect Abe's tactics over the dissolution. Seiji Maehara, newly elected president of the largest opposition Democratic Party, remains cautious about cooperating with the Japanese Communist Party in elections, while the political group "Nippon First no Kai" (Japan First association) set up by lower house legislator Masaru Wakasa, a close ally of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, looks to send its own candidates to the next lower house race and become a proper party in national politics. Some members within the ruling coalition calculate that it would be advantageous to the coalition to dissolve the lower chamber before opposition forces prepare themselves for a general election.

Scenario 2: A spring 2018 election, and a tidy path for Abe to stay atop the LDP

If there is no lower house dissolution this year, we may see it come between the passage of the fiscal 2018 budget in spring and the end of the regular Diet session.

That would make it easy for the Abe administration to campaign on an economy-first platform and, if the LDP won the general election, virtually guarantee Abe's selection for a third term as LDP leader in the party's presidential poll the following September.

With the help of like-minded parties, Abe is hoping to table constitutional revision proposals during the 2018 regular Diet session. If it appears likely that pro-revision forces will maintain their current two-thirds majority in the lower house after an election, then there will be no rush to see the Diet initiate constitutional amendment, through a vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each chamber, before dissolving the lower house.

However, if keeping hold of that majority looks uncertain, then Abe will likely wait until after the Diet initiates constitutional revision before sending Japan to the polls. As one senior LDP executive put it, "the prime minister will not give up on changing the Constitution."

A consumption tax hike from the current 8 percent to 10 percent is set for October 2019. However, there remain observers who believe he will delay the hike once again. If Abe put off dissolving the lower house to beyond spring next year, any general election would overlap with discussions on the fiscal 2019 budget estimate -- including the presence or absence of revenue from the higher consumption tax rate. The tax hike would thus inevitably become a major election issue.

Would Abe hold resolutely to the tax increase plan despite the certain political blowback? Or would he replicate his 2014 lower house election strategy, which made much of delaying the hike and ultimately helped the LDP to a landslide victory at the polls?

Scenario 3: Wait for fall 2018, and perhaps bid goodbye to Abe

In a third general election scenario, the Abe administration sticks with its present firm grip on the reins of government and waits until after the September 2018 LDP presidential election to dissolve the lower house.

This would give the Diet time to initiate constitutional revision, and also potentially keep Abe in the prime minister's office until at least September 2021. However, pursuing both a long time in power and constitutional change has now become tactically very difficult with the struggling Cabinet approval rating.

When former Prime Minister Taro Aso -- now deputy prime minister and finance minister -- waited to call a general election until just before the end of lawmakers' terms ended in 2009, the LDP and coalition partner Komeito were crushed at the polls and driven out of power.

Unless the Abe administration recovers its once sterling public approval ratings, it could very well find itself overtaken by the mandatory election schedule to dissolve the lower house should it wait until after the LDP leadership convention. If the administration stalls badly, then it becomes increasingly likely that the LDP will drop Abe and choose a new president before tackling a general election. One LDP insider told the Mainichi Shimbun, "'Dissolving the lower house after the LDP leadership election' has more or less the same meaning as, 'Dissolving the lower house under a new prime minister.'"

Government figures believe it highly likely that Emperor Akihito will abdicate at the end of 2018, with a new era starting on New Year's Day 2019. The schedule for the Imperial succession will also impact the prime minister's decision on when to trigger Japan's next general election.

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