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Abe faces challenges in election year; speculation of lower house snap poll remains

TOKYO -- A series of major elections await Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2019, and speculation remains within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that he may call a snap election of the House of Representatives while keeping an eye on the upcoming House of Councillors race in a bid to win enough seats in the Diet to realize his goal of revising the Constitution.

The election season will start with general local polls in the spring, two lower house by-elections and the upper house contest during the summer. Some people in the LDP worry that the party may face an uphill battle in the upper chamber race as the premier has had a tough time maintaining intraparty support. Losing the two-thirds majority of lawmakers who support constitutional revision in the national election could turn the administration into a lame duck, those lawmakers point out.

Abe himself denied the possibility of double elections for the two Diet chambers during his first press conference of the year on Jan. 4, saying, "The thought of dissolution (of the lower house) and having a general election has never crossed my mind." He also said, however, that the administration must resist becoming too rigid, stating, "The most important thing is to have the flexibility to react to any situation."

Among the various elections, the biggest hurdle is the upper house race. For many lawmakers of the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito, the battle will be tough because it will come only months after general local elections -- meaning election campaign teams will already be exhausted from supporting local assembly candidates.

Most LDP upper house members seeking re-election are those who were successful in the 2013 race when the ruling party won 65 seats -- more than it expected. "We won too many seats back then," one senior party official ventured to say, implying that the party is going to lose at least some of those seats this time.

The ruling coalition could maintain a majority in the House of Councillors by winning 53 seats on top of the 70 that are not being contested in the upcoming race. However, the LDP needs to secure all of 67 seats up for grabs this time if it wants to keep its single-party majority with 123 seats.

One source of worry for the ruling camp stems from the results of the September 2018 LDP presidential race. Abe won the race for his third consecutive term, but 45 percent of party member votes went to his rival Shiegru Ishiba, former secretary-general of the party. "The premier's grip on the party is getting weaker," said a veteran lawmaker.

Moreover, as much as 40 percent of voters were opposed to the Abe Cabinet in a Mainichi Shimbun poll late last year, amid public criticism over favoritism allegations centering on school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, both of which have been linked to Abe or his wife Akie. As the Abe administration's historic longevity continues for a seventh year, no one can be certain of the extent of voters' weariness and mistrust toward the government.

Furthermore, the nation's consumption tax will be raised to 10 percent from the current 8 percent in October. The opposition camp hopes to leverage this move to score points against the ruling parties in the upper house race.

The administration is bent on producing new material it can use to underscore its achievements, but no major items are available so far. Constitutional revision, which Abe is eager to achieve, has no real traction among voters, and no substantial debates have taken place in the Diet.

Abe now wants to pitch a peace treaty and territorial negotiations with Russia to voters in the upper house race, according to people close to the premier. He will visit Russia and talk with President Vladimir Putin as early as Jan. 21. Abe hopes to make some "progress" at their next meeting in June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit of leading rich and emerging nations and regions in Osaka in western Japan, and use the outcome to secure footing for his administration so that it can emerge victorious in the Diet race.

A close aide to Abe says the premier has been "fairly upbeat recently" because he expects the upcoming Imperial succession and the G-20 meeting to blow wind into his sails.

Inside the LDP, some people are strongly urging a snap election for the lower house in tandem with the upper house contest -- a scenario once considered in 2016. Despite Abe's Jan. 4 denial of such an eventuality, some members believe double elections would give the ruling camp an edge. The lower house poll is about choosing the next ruling party to form the government, and offering that choice "would push voters away from the opposition camp, which is in disarray," said a junior lawmaker of the party. This speculation, coupled with a breakthrough in territorial talks with Russia, may drive calls for a double election.

Komeito, however, is opposed to the idea, and has already conveyed its stance to the prime minister's office. "We will think about this by reviewing the results of the general local elections in April and the lower house by-elections," said an aide to the prime minister.

--- Opposition faces hurdle in forming unified front for upper house race

For the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), the upper house race is a vital election that will decide their future. Still, their efforts to select joint candidates for constituencies where only one seat each will be up for grabs are not going ahead as planned, and the two parties are competing to choose candidates in multiple-seat districts. They are both eager to increase their presence so that they can have an upper hand in the reorganization of the opposition bloc, but their infighting may end up benefiting the ruling camp.

CDP leader Yukio Edano told a TV program recorded on Dec. 25 that he is eager to create a framework for a one-on-one battle between the ruling and opposition camps in constituencies where one seat will be contested. As for multiple-seat electoral districts, Edano warned, candidate selections based on national politics "would drive voters away" from the opposition.

In the 2016 upper house election, four opposition parties cooperated to win 11 of 32 districts where one seat each was contested. They hope to see a rerun of this success this year, but so far only five such districts -- those in Tochigi north of Tokyo, Gifu and Mie in central Japan, and Oita and Kumamoto in southern Japan -- are expected to field a single opposition-backed candidate in each district. On Jan. 4, Japanese Communist Party (JCP) chief Kazuo Shii called for talks to advance candidacy adjustments as soon as possible.

The biggest problem for the opposition lies in dual-seat constituencies. In Kyoto in western Japan, one incumbent on a JCP ticket is facing off with DPP and CDP candidates. The DPP also has incumbents facing re-election bids in the prefectures of Ibaraki north of Tokyo, Shizuoka in central Japan and Hiroshima in western Japan. One senior party official tried to calm down competition inside the opposition camp by pointing out, "If opposition parties fall together, the ruling camp will get lucky."

However, many in the CDP say beating the DPP is their ticket to claiming their party's position as a contender against the Abe administration. The JCP also intends to field its own candidates in multiple-seat districts and the proportional representation portion of the race.

Their cooperative drive has been less visible ahead of the next lower house race because of their fierce rivalry in the 2017 election. If the opposition parties had fielded jointly backed candidates in all of the single-seat constituencies in that race, they could have won 84 districts against ruling candidates. Should Prime Minister Abe call a double election, the opposition could be beaten again in those constituencies.

"The entire opposition camp would lose voters' confidence should the opposition parties continue to fight among themselves," pointed out an LDP former Cabinet member.

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Asahi, Keiko Takahashi and Hiroshi Odanaka, Political News Department)

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