TOKYO -- Japanese political circles are abuzz with debate over whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will call a snap election this year, a potentially risky maneuver that could nonetheless offer the best chance of maintaining the ruling coalition's dominance.
The power to dissolve the lower house for an election underpins the prime minister's authority. Abe did so in November 2014, just under two years after his return to office and well before the end of Diet members' four-year terms. Opposition parties were caught flat-footed, allowing his Liberal Democratic Party to sweep to victory. This has heightened fear among lawmakers that a snap election could be called anytime, strengthening the prime minister's hand.
This has fueled rumors within both the ruling coalition and the opposition about an election this year. This could come in conjunction with two Oct. 22 by-elections or afterward, toward the end of the year, if the LDP wins those races.
A major factor is the LDP's crushing defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election last month by Tomin First no Kai, a new regional party spearheaded by popular Gov. Yuriko Koike. A close ally of Koike's, lower house member Masaru Wakasa, has announced plans to launch a new national party within the year. His political group, Nippon First no Kai, will launch an academy next month with an eye toward spotting promising candidates for national office.
The party would probably serve as a rallying point for voters dissatisfied with the current government, a senior LDP official predicted.
Given such moves on the opposition side, a snap election this year would make a certain amount of sense. Even if the new party is formed by year-end, it will not start receiving public funds until next year. And an early election would give the group too little time to properly prepare, particularly in outlying areas, while also depriving the opposition of the opportunity to establish a united front.
Relative political stability is another point in favor of holding a vote this year. An Aug. 3 cabinet reshuffle halted the slide in the Abe government's support, which had been sinking since April amid a slew of scandals. A member of Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, expressed hope that demonstrating stability at the upcoming extraordinary Diet session and steadying the cabinet's approval rating before calling a snap election would pave the way for a long stay in power.
Yet Abe could still hold off for now, instead waiting until the latter half of 2018. A snap election would run the risk that forces in favor of rewriting the constitution may lose their current two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet -- the threshold needed to achieve Abe's long-sought goal of revising the charter.
"We could lose 50 seats or more" if Abe dissolves the lower house, a top LDP official warned. Opinion is divided on whether the prime minister would take that chance.