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Editorial: Sounding caution against Diet fracas over possible double election

Speculation abounds that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may dissolve the House of Representatives during the ongoing regular session of the Diet for a snap general election to coincide with the House of Councillors election scheduled for this summer.

The four-year terms of the sitting lower house members are set to expire in the fall of 2021, while Prime Minister Abe's tenure as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will also end right before that. If a lower chamber election is to be held before then, wouldn't it be better to call it now to be timed with the summer upper house poll, rather than waiting until after the consumption tax hike scheduled for October or the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games -- after which the domestic economy is projected to experience a downturn? This is an opinion echoed by an increasing number of legislators within the LDP.

If a double election is called, it would be the first such poll since a system combining single-seat constituencies with proportional representation was introduced in lower house elections. However, is there really a need and urgency to go out of the way to hold a double election to seek voters' response?

Popular opinions within the LDP include one that a party victory in a double poll would raise the possibility of Prime Minister Abe being elected to his fourth consecutive term as LDP president -- with concerns for voters only sidelined.

Both ruling and opposition parties are obsessed with talks of a possible double election and making light of Diet deliberations as a result, which only harms the public.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as finance minister, suggested to Prime Minister Abe in late April that a double election be called, telling him, "If a lower house election is to be called, it should be in this summer," while weighing the economic outlook down the road.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also hinted at the possibility of a double election, stating that if opposition parties submitted a no-confidence motion against the Abe Cabinet toward the end of the current Diet session, it would give a good reason for Abe to dissolve the lower chamber for a snap general election to seek public opinion.

These statements by key administration figures are fueling the speculation for a possible double election.

Since returning to power in late 2012, Prime Minister Abe has twice dissolved the lower chamber. In 2014, he called a lower house contest making his policy reversal of delaying the consumption tax hike a major point of contention. In 2017, he abruptly announced a plan to divert extra revenue from the sales tax raise to finance not only social security but also free education programs, and called a snap general election with the pros and cons of the proposal at stake.

This time around, there is a flurry of conjectures that Prime Minister Abe may use some kind of moves over the consumption tax increase as a pretext for a double election.

In the 2017 general election, the prime minister declared the poll as being aimed at resolving crises Japan faced, highlighting the aging society and declining birth rate as well as the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons programs and missile launches.

The LDP won both elections, but what has happened to these "national crises" that Abe stressed so much in 2017? Prime Minister Abe has not evaluated those issues but instead has reeled out a string of new policy measures in a bid to keep his administration afloat. This is proof that those lower house dissolutions lacked legitimate causes.

Japan has seen upper and lower house elections take place simultaneously twice in the past, in 1980 and 1986. In both elections, the LDP scored landslide victories, contributing to the theory that a double election best serves the interests of the LDP, which boasts its organizational power backed by industry groups and individual lawmakers' support groups.

However, the upper chamber has a unique role of supplementing the shortcomings of its lower counterpart, while keeping the latter in check. Furthermore, if the lower house was dissolved for a general election to coincide with the upper house contest, the Diet will see most of its seats unoccupied, except for half of the upper house seats that are not up for grabs in the forthcoming poll. The elections for the two chambers, therefore, should inherently be held separately.

Since the single-seat constituency system was introduced, lower house elections have served as occasions for voters to choose the next administration, while upper house elections have been increasingly recognized as a sort of "midterm elections" where voters evaluate the state of affairs of the administration ahead of the next general election.

If a double election is called, voters will be deprived of the chance to hand down an interim verdict on the administration. Unlike when the multiple-seat constituency system was in place, voters now have two ballots to cast in each lower house election. A double poll would make voting procedures more complicated for voters, as they are subtly different from chamber to chamber.

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said, "There is no way the lower house will be dissolved for the sake of the upper house (election)." We have no objection to that. But there are calls within the LDP caucus in the upper house for holding a double election just because that scenario appears to be more beneficial for the party. This is tantamount to those lawmakers denying their raison d'etre and identities at their own hands.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties have declared that they are ready to face a double election, a gesture apparently aimed at obscuring their lack of preparations. Yet what the opposition camp should do first and foremost is to warn the LDP over any hints at a double election, which could only serve the ruling party's interests.

Japan faces a plethora of problems, namely trade negotiations with the United States, the sovereignty dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories, the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea, and the controversy over the economic outlook. Prime Minister Abe has shown his willingness to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without setting conditions, while the government has boasted that the Japanese economy is making a moderate recovery.

The serious depopulation faced by Japanese society has not been sufficiently discussed, while the favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution have yet to be resolved. The government's statistical scandals have developed into the discovery of yet more irregular stats cases.

In order to deal with these issues, the Diet should convene budget committee sessions in both chambers as early as possible -- and for the first time in a long while. Now is not the time for lawmakers to be in excitement over the projections of a possible double election. The Diet is urged to fairly and squarely fulfill its role.

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