What Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cited at a press conference Sept. 25 as the reason for his decision to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election was to seek a public mandate on changes in the use of future consumption tax revenue, and on the government's response to North Korea.
The thing is, however, the ruling and opposition parties largely share the same views on both of these issues, and hence they do not serve as clear points of contention in an election. Because Abe scrambled to come up with reasons for dissolving the lower house at this point in time, the holes in his rationale are easy to spot.
"We cannot push forth major reforms that could split public opinion in two without seeking a public mandate," the prime minister said. He emphasized that a re-examination of how increased tax revenue from a consumption tax hike scheduled for October 2019 would be used is a "major point of contention" in the upcoming snap election.
However, Abe's pledge to make education free is a policy that opposition parties have already been advocating. Even before Abe made his announcement that he was aiming to make education free, the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) had upheld the allocation of increased tax revenue toward education. So how would this be a topic that would split public opinion in two?
Nearly five years have passed since Abe's return to power. There must've been opportunities during that time to address Japan's falling birth rate and a rapidly aging population. So why is Abe just now dissolving the lower house and seeking a public mandate?
"In order to overcome the state of national crisis characterized by our low birthrate and aging population," Abe told the press conference, "I will exercise my leadership to the fullest." He then presented specific goals, such as expanding the scope of grant-based scholarships for college that do not have to be repaid, making kindergarten and day care free across the board for children aged 3 to 5 by fiscal 2020, and making kindergarten and day care free also for children aged up to 2 among low-income households.
However, it was just earlier this month that the government set up an expert panel to begin deliberations on free education. There's no denying that Abe's citing of "free education" as a rationale for dissolving the lower house came very abruptly.
"I want to drastically change how we use consumption tax revenue," Abe also told the press conference. "I want to strike a delicate balance in the use of future tax revenue by investing in the child-rearing generation and stabilizing social security spending, and simultaneously working toward fiscal rehabilitation."
The prime minister admitted that if changes in future tax revenue use are implemented, a previous plan to bring the government's primary balance into the black by fiscal 2020 will become "difficult to achieve," but also stated that he had no intention of cowering away from that goal, emphasizing that he will promote both an expansion in social spending and fiscal reconstruction.
These may be admirable promises made ahead of the upcoming general election, but how to secure financial resources for these measures was put on the back burner. Some 4 trillion yen of the approximately 5 trillion yen in increased tax revenue that is expected from a consumption tax hike of 8 percent to 10 percent had been set for paying back national debt. Now, Abe is saying that a portion of that 4 trillion yen will be earmarked for free education, which will delay efforts to rehabilitate the government's fiscal health. Although Abe said he would be redrafting a plan to bring the country's primary balance into the black, he refrained from setting a specific time frame for when that goal would be achieved.
Abe also said, "By dramatically funneling policy funds into social spending, our country's social security system will make a drastic shift to one that encompasses all generations." Abe appeared to be emphasizing the significance of re-examining how tax revenue is used, but a policy to "shift social security spending to one that encompasses all generations" had already been decided as a government policy when, during the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration, the DPJ -- now the Democratic Party (DP) -- along with Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito, reached a three-party agreement on raising the consumption tax. Abe is the very person who has postponed consumption tax hikes twice.
Meanwhile, Abe also raised the issue of his administration's handling of North Korea as a rationale for dissolving the lower house, saying, "I will receive a public mandate and protect this country to the very end."
And yet, there has been little protest, from the DP and others, over the government's policy of applying pressure on North Korea, which has continued to develop its nuclear and missile programs. The ruling LDP and Komeito coalition account for two-thirds of the seats in the lower house, giving the Abe administration stability. Abe's plan to dissolve the lower house and call a snap election when its members have more than a year until their terms end, and thereby create a political vacuum amid rising tensions with North Korea, makes his vow to "protect this country" an unconvincing one.
Explained Abe, "Elections, which comprise the basics of a democracy, should not be influenced by threats from North Korea. Because of what we face today, I want to seek the public's mandate on our response to North Korea." However, it wasn't until earlier this month that Abe communicated to the ruling coalition his intention to dissolve the lower house, by which time North Korea had conducted its 6th nuclear test. Abe hadn't considered dissolving the lower house earlier at all. One could interpret this as Abe holding a snap election for the very reason that North Korea is repeating acts of provocation.
One government source says that it is unlikely that the U.S. or North Korea will launch attacks anytime soon, and that the tense situation involving North Korea will continue for another year or so. Some believe that the general election will be held now because of these predictions that tense relations will continue for the long term.
However, Abe made no commentary on such a possibility, and focused on the falling birth rate and aging population, coupled with the threat of North Korea as putting Japan into a "national crisis," the government's response to which he claims must be put to a public vote.
With regard to scandals involving the school operators Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution, Abe told the press conference, "I have made efforts to thoroughly explain myself, including participating in out-of-session questioning by Diet members. My attitude toward explaining myself remains unchanged."
Abe admitted that he invited the distrust of the public concerning the Moritomo and Kake scandals, but maintained that he has fulfilled his duty to explain what had happened. But following the conclusion of the ordinary session of the Diet in June, out-of-session questioning was held just twice each in the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. Moreover, Abe attended just one session in each chamber. Calls to have Abe's wife, Akie, and Abe's friend and chairman of Kake Educational Institution, Kotaro Kake, take the stand at these sessions as witnesses went ignored.
When Abe reshuffled his Cabinet in August, following the LDP's massive defeat to the Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, Abe promised he would offer "exhaustive explanations." And yet, when opposition parties demanded that an extraordinary session of the Diet be held in accordance with the Constitution, he refused to comply for three months. With the extraordinary session of the Diet that is set to "start" on Sept. 28, Abe intends merely to dissolve the lower house without any discussion.
Abe has insisted that what he has done and is preparing to do is not problematic under the Constitution. But opposition parties argue that his actions are in violation of the Constitution, and that he is merely trying to evade questions about his involvement in various scandals.