TOKYO -- Though some in Japan's ruling coalition hope for a snap lower house election this month while support remains high and opposition parties weak, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems more inclined to spend his ample political capital on economic policymaking.
"In these four days [since New Year's], I have not thought at all" about dissolving the lower house for early elections, Abe told reporters Wednesday after his annual visit to the Ise Grand Shrine.
Many in the government and the ruling coalition think the public would not support going to the polls now, given that Abenomics' full promise remains unfulfilled. Lower house members' terms are set to expire in December 2018.
"We must escape deflation and put the Japanese economy firmly on a new path for growth," Abe said at the news conference.
Hit 'em while they're down
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner Komeito hold better than a two-thirds majority in the lower house, past the threshold required to initiate amendments to the constitution or to override an upper house vote against a bill.
But the prime minister is concerned that the main opposition Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and others may form a united front ahead of the next election by coordinating in single-seat constituency races. Some LDP members worry the party could lose 30 to 40 seats depending on how things play out. Such worries have prompted calls for a snap election before the opposition has a chance to solidify.
Yet the opposition parties still must overcome many differences. The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, or Rengo, the Democratic Party's main support base, opposes working with the Communists. Public support for the Democratic Party, which held power for three years in 2009-12, has languished despite a fresh face at the top -- Renho, Japan's only female leader of a major political party. Some in the ruling coalition expect no serious threat regardless of when the election may be held.
"There is no reason why we need to dissolve the lower house right now," LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said in a TV appearance Wednesday. "The way things are going, we would have an advantage anytime. The LDP will win no matter when the lower house is dissolved."
Full schedule ahead
Some think January elections would be almost impossible anyway. The government and ruling coalition are preparing for four key speeches, including one by Abe, on Jan. 20 when the next Diet session begins. Opposition leaders would take the floor Jan. 23-25. Abe hopes to arrange a meeting immediately afterward with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who will have taken office by then. The prime minister also wants to pass a third supplementary budget for fiscal 2016, which includes disaster relief and defense spending, by early February.
Dissolving the lower house in February or later could interfere with plans to pass the fiscal 2017 budget before the current fiscal year ends in March. The economy could suffer if the government has to resort to a provisional budget instead. After the budget passes, the focus will shift to enacting special legislation to let the emperor abdicate.
A snap election would become even less likely at midyear. A committee tasked with redrawing electoral districts is expected to submit a proposal by May on eliminating six single-seat districts. Once the Diet enacts related legislation, the change will need a month to take effect. Also, the campaign for the Tokyo metropolitan assembly, which Komeito considers almost as important as a general election, is coming up in the summer.
Thus the likeliest timing for a snap election is autumn. But it is hard to predict how the economy, a factor that could sway Abe's decision, will have changed by then. There is no assurance that the yen will stay comfortably weak and Japanese stock prices high, as they have since Trump's election victory.
"The Year of the Rooster has occasionally proven a political turning point," Abe said Wednesday, citing the Chinese zodiac for 2017. He touched on notable snap elections that happened under the same sign, such as one that Junichiro Koizumi framed as a referendum on postal privatization in 2005, or Eisaku Sato's 1969 gambit following a deal on the return of Okinawa from the U.S.
Snap elections can help a prime minister keep a solid grip on power, and it will bear watching whether Abe decides to pull the trigger in 2017.