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PM Abe dissolves lower house for snap election

House of Representatives members give three cheers as Speaker Tadamori Oshima reads an Imperial rescript dissolving the chamber at a plenary session on Sept. 28, 2017. Members of key opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, boycotted the session. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the House of Representatives at the Sept. 28 outset of an extraordinary Diet session for a snap general election.

At an extraordinary Cabinet meeting later in the day, the government approved a schedule under which official campaigning will kick off on Oct. 10 for an Oct. 22 election. The previous lower house poll was in December 2014.

Abe, also leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is set to campaign on using a portion of new revenue from a scheduled consumption tax hike to make preschool education free, and proposals to revise the Constitution.

Seiji Maehara, president of the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP), on Sept. 28 announced he is proposing to effectively disband his party, clearing the way for it to merge with newly founded Kibo no To (Party of Hope), led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.

Abe has won four consecutive Diet elections since he returned to power in 2012. Therefore, whether his nearly 5-year-old administration should continue will be called into question in the upcoming poll. Prime Minister Abe told reporters at his office on the morning of Sept. 28, "We will fulfill our responsibility by appealing to the public for support for our policies and produce results."

The Abe Cabinet approved an Imperial rescript dissolving the lower house at a meeting on the morning of Sept. 28. At a lower house plenary session, Speaker Tadamori Oshima read out the rescript. Prime Minister Abe did not deliver a policy speech, nor did the chamber hold a question-and-answer session.

The lower house dissolution scuttled government legislative plans for the autumn session, including a work-style reform bill, a bill on countermeasures against secondhand smoking, and an integrated resort bill that would allow the establishment of casinos. The Diet also did not adopt a scheduled resolution condemning North Korea for conducting a nuclear test or launching missiles.

Opposition parties reacted sharply to the lower house dissolution without holding a question-and-answer session, particularly as the prime minister had promised to provide a thorough explanation of allegations of favoritism involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution. Opposition forces had demanded in June that an extraordinary session be convened under Article 53 of the Constitution to probe the scandals, and one opposition member stated, "The (dissolution) move is aimed at covering up these scandals."

The opposition also criticized the prime minister for disbanding the chamber without cause. Members of four opposition parties -- the DP, the Japanese Communist Party, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party -- boycotted the plenary session in protest.

The lower house race will also be a vote of confidence in the prime minister, who has denied doing any favors for the school operators.

At a Sept. 25 news conference, Abe explained that he would dissolve the lower house to "overcome difficulties the nation faces." As specific policy measures, the prime minister said Japan will continue to put pressure on North Korea, and earmark some 2 trillion yen to promote a "human resource development revolution" to overcome the low birthrate and aging of the population.

Abe said he will consider the election a victory if the ruling coalition parties -- the LDP and Komeito -- win a simple majority, or 233 of the 465 seats in the lower chamber. He also declared that he will resign if the ruling coalition fails to win a majority.

Meanwhile, Gov. Koike characterized the election as a choice between the LDP and her Kibo no To. At a news conference on Sept. 27 to announce the formation of her new party, Koike described it as a "moderate, reform-minded conservative party." She also declared that the party will "reset Japan."

A focal point of contention is a consumption tax increase from the current 8 percent to 10 percent, scheduled for October 2019. The prime minister has pledged to divert a portion of consumption tax revenue to beef up child-rearing support and other measures on the assumption that the government will raise the sales tax as scheduled. However, Koike insisted that the planned hike of the indirect tax levied on virtually all goods and services be postponed.

Also, while Abe will propose to revise the war-renouncing Constitution by adding a clause stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), Koike's party prioritizes changing clauses on local autonomy and transforming the Diet into a unicameral system.

Koike, who has proposed to eliminate nuclear power by 2030, will also confront the largest ruling party over its aim to maintain atomic power stations.

Under the revised Public Offices Election Act that came into force in July, the number of single-seat constituencies has been cut by six to 289, and the proportional representation seats have been reduced by four to 176.

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