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Politics

Abe keeps election ace up sleeve as Diet session ends

With double poll officially out, lower house vote depends on constitution reform outlook

Abe must avoid turning into a lame duck as he pursues his long-cherished goal of revising the Constitution.

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to preserve the option of calling a snap election, his most powerful political weapon, for now to keep lawmakers at bay as he pursues his long-held goal of revising the Constitution.

With the parliamentary session having ended on Wednesday, the government officially decided that the upper house election will be held on July 21, ruling out the option of holding a lower house election the same day.

"It is an election for voters to decide whether they want parties that won't even discuss the constitution, or a party and candidates that will propel the debate," Abe told reporters that day.

Abe's current term as the head of the Liberal Democratic Party expires in September 2021, and those of the lower house members in October that year. The prime minister will use the remaining over two years in office to achieve constitutional revisions while taming party members who might otherwise view Abe as a lame-duck leader with the threat of a snap election.

Abe's earliest opportunity to call a snap election for the lower house now comes around the end of this year, after all rites tied to Emperor Naruhito's ascension are completed. A campaign at this time likely would focus on Japan's draft budget for fiscal 2020 and economic measures.

The government plans to include economic stimulus in the fiscal 2020 budget, looking to ensure cash will flow beyond Japan's big cities and prevent the national economy from sinking.

Many LDP members want the earliest possible lower house election. Opposition parties are unlikely to be ready by then, as they currently have potential candidates for only 200 of Japan's 289 single-seat districts. With more conservative members of the opposition defecting to the LDP, some also think the ruling party's rivals could simply implode.

But the decision will hinge on the state of the economy following Japan's consumption tax hike to 10% in October. Opinion is divided on whether the rate increase from 8% will hurt consumer sentiment.

"We will not hesitate to take flexible and thorough measures to address downward risks in the economy," Abe said.

The LDP may choose not to risk an election if the economy appears to worsen following the hike, working instead to get the economy back on track.

The next possible window is spring 2020. Abe wants to put an amended constitution into effect next year, meaning he expects much of the debate to happen at the regular Diet session that starts in January. The prime minister could dissolve the lower house after the budget is passed in order to break any possible deadlock.

"As lawmakers, we have a great responsibility to provide the materials for a constitutional amendment," Abe said Wednesday.

A snap election also could be held in fall 2020, after the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics that summer, on the hope that the games buoy public sentiment and lift the LDP in the polls.

An election in 2020, whether in the spring or fall, would mean elected lower house lawmakers could serve until 2024. This opens the door to a fourth term for Abe as LDP president, the post from which he is to step down in September 2021.

Abe could leave the decision to call a snap election to his successor, focusing instead on amending the constitution by the end of his term. But this would be a gamble for the LDP. The new leader would have little room for further delays should approval ratings fall after Abe leaves office.

"The prime minister will definitely dissolve the lower house during his term," a source close to Abe said.

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