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1986 dual elections offer clue to Abe's plans

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, center, at the Tokyo summit in 1986.

TOKYO -- Japan could be in for a turbulent political season this year, with speculation swirling around possible snap elections for the lower house alongside this summer's upper house election. This comes amid debate over apportionment of Diet seats, an upcoming Group of 7 summit and preparation for a sales-tax hike.

     And those high-stakes issues paint a political landscape strikingly similar to that in 1986, when then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone led the Liberal Democratic Party to an overwhelming victory in surprise simultaneous upper- and lower-house elections.

     That year also saw a battle in the Diet over vote-value disparity. The Supreme Court had ruled the results of the 1983 general election unconstitutional in 1985, with some votes worth more than three times as much as others.

     Negotiations between ruling and oppositions parties became bogged down. Lower House Speaker Michita Sakata proposed a compromise that would adjust seat-distribution to limit the disparities to less than three to one. The measure passed May 22, the final day of the Diet session. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to have the Public Offices Election Act amended during the current Diet session to rectify similar disparities. 

     But Sakata's proposal included a key provision requiring a 30-day period before implementation to give voters a chance to understand the changes. This made June 21 the earliest possible date for a lower-house election. Same-day upper- and lower-house elections would thus be impossible without extending the Diet session. Chief Cabinet Secretary Masaharu Gotoda called the measure a check on the prime minister's right to dissolve the lower house. The public was convinced that Nakasone would not be able to hold same-day elections.

Playing dead

But it was Nakasone who outmaneuvered the system. He ended the parliamentary session without an extension and then convened a special session 10 days after just to dissolve the lower house for an election. Opposition parties were blindsided. The prime minister reportedly told aides that he had been thinking about same-day elections since the start of the year, and that he "played dead" to make people believe that he wasn't plotting anything -- a phrase that came to describe his gambit.

     Nakasone pledged during the campaign not to implement a major indirect tax, helping to propel the LDP to a sweeping victory as the party captured 300 seats in the lower house. But he later accelerated efforts to implement the tax -- the forerunner to the current consumption tax -- angering the public. Should Abe dissolve the lower house to hold dual elections, he could ask the public to decide the fate of next year's consumption tax hike.

     The LDP granted a one-year extension to Nakasone's term as party president that September in light of the election landslide, letting him stay on as prime minister. Some see Abe aiming to remain in office until the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. A victory in dual elections could boost his case for an extension, as it did for his predecessor.

     Abe's second and final term as LDP president is slated to end in September 2018. An extension beyond Aug. 24, 2019, could see him surpass his great uncle, Eisaku Sato, to become Japan's longest-serving postwar prime minister.

International spotlight

Tokyo hosted a G-7 summit on May 4-6, 1986, attended by such dignitaries as U.S. President Ronald Reagan, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

     Japan is hosting this year's G-7 summit as well, this time on May 26-27 in the Ise-Shima area of Mie Prefecture. Abe likely hopes to parlay a successful summit into victory in summer elections. The LDP has often lost or struggled in national elections held in years when Japan hosted G-7 or Group of 8 summits. Its only clear victory under such conditions was in 1986.

     Abe has said repeatedly that he has no intention of dissolving the lower house. But lying about this particular topic is considered acceptable in Nagatacho, Japan's political nerve center.

     Abe's father, Shintaro Abe, served as foreign minister in Nakasone's cabinet. Shinzo Abe had an opportunity to observe Nakasone's actions up close as his father's secretary. Three decades later, he himself has reached the summit of government. Whether he will follow in his predecessor's footsteps will soon become clear.

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