TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could well dissolve the Diet's lower house in January for a snap election if a planned visit to Pearl Harbor late this month bolsters public support for his cabinet.
U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to the city of Hiroshima, in May, won support from 92% of respondents to a survey by The Nikkei and boosted the cabinet's approval rating three points to 56%. In late November, this figure was 58%.
Abe's visit to Pearl Harbor, the site of a Japanese attack in 1941, during a two-day trip to Hawaii from Dec. 26 could boost approval further, mitigating potential damage as the ruling party prepares to enact unpopular legislation, including a bill legalizing casinos as part of integrated resorts and reforms to Japan's pension system.
Some within the Abe government take this to mean the prime minister could safely dissolve the lower house at the beginning of 2017 for an election soon after. The cabinet aims to approve the fiscal 2017 draft budget on Dec. 22, compared to Dec. 24 in a typical year, letting lawmakers return home to their districts earlier than usual and the prime minister to visit the U.S.
While the budget includes measures that will make medical expenses more of a burden on the elderly, it will not go into effect until next summer. January is thus an ideal time for a lower-house race, as it will take place before the pinch of those policies is felt and avoid conflicting with a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election important to Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's junior coalition partner, that is also slated for the summer.
Two days of talks between Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin starting Dec. 15 were originally to provide the boost necessary to call an election. But making progress on territorial disputes over islands north of Hokkaido now looks tougher than previously thought. Officials from the opposition Democratic Party now worry the Pearl Harbor visit will allow Abe to cancel out any losses from those talks, creating a climate conducive to a general election.
The Abe government has said little on the matter. An official on Monday evening noted only that "we have received a number of inquiries about the possibility of dissolving the lower house."