TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to dissolve the lower house for a snap election next month, hoping to capitalize on an uptick in public support before the opposition has a chance to regroup and mount a formidable challenge.
Abe told Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of coalition partner Komeito, and others of his plans to call an election, likely for Oct. 22, sending ruling and opposition parties into campaign mode. It would be the first general election since December 2014.
Abe met with Ryu Shionoya, the campaign strategy chief for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, for about an hour at his private home Sunday night. Abe told Shionoya that he will make a final decision on the timing of the election after he returns from New York on Friday. Mindful of criticism that he should focus on handling the North Korean situation, he offered his assessment that "it will take awhile to resolve the crisis."
The prime minister also intends to meet with Yamaguchi on Monday before leaving for the United Nations General Assembly. The secretaries-general and campaign chiefs of the LDP and Komeito will meet that night to discuss election strategy.
Many in Abe's Liberal Democratic Party think holding an early election would provide a strategic advantage enabling the coalition to minimize damage to its dominance in the Diet's lower house.
The main opposition Democratic Party, which just elected new leader Seiji Maehara, stands in disarray as disaffected member lawmakers abandon the party. Maehara has yet to decide what to do with the party's cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party, a significant parliamentary presence that is still viewed with deep suspicion by some in his party.
The LDP also hopes to pre-empt Masaru Wakasa, a lower house member closely aligned with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike who plans to launch a new party.
The prime minister's popularity plunged during the ordinary Diet session ended in June as a nationalist school scandal and a controversial veterinary school plan roiled legislative talks. But with North Korea's repeated provocations raising national security concerns, Abe's support has been recovering of late.
"We must seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," a senior LDP member said.
Abe likely will dissolve the lower house as soon as the Diet convenes Sept. 28, sources in the ruling party say. The campaign could kick off Oct. 10 for an Oct. 22 vote, or on Oct. 17 for an election Oct. 29. In either case, the three lower house by-elections scheduled for Oct. 22 would be canceled, held instead as part of the general election.
By opting for an early snap election, Abe prioritizes maintaining his party's control of the parliament, as the Democratic Party remains dogged by internal wrangling. Yet with no policy initiative requiring a fresh public mandate, Abe could be accused of holding an election for no reason.
Though Abe's support is recovering, the prime minister has lost the momentum he once enjoyed. Abe is increasingly concerned about his prospects in the LDP presidential election next fall. His initial plan was to cruise to an easy victory in the presidential race and then leverage his high approval to call an election late that year. But his sliding poll numbers have upended this scenario.
He has had many opportunities to call an election while enjoying high approval ratings. But each time he punted because of his cherished goal of revising Japan's pacifist charter.
The ruling coalition currently holds 321 seats in the 475-member lower house, above the two-thirds threshold needed to propose constitutional revisions.
This time, Abe decided he had no choice but to risk losing that precious majority as grumblings within the LDP grow louder. If he loses his clout inside the party because of his inability to boost his approval ratings, proposing charter revisions could become politically untenable due to internal opposition.
In the end, Abe chose to reboot his government by seeking a fresh mandate, even at the risk of jeopardizing the chance of revising the constitution. He is also somewhat optimistic about achieving this monumental goal. Many of the Democratic Party defectors are conservatives who back rewriting the charter. Even if the ruling coalition loses its current strength, there will be enough like-minded lawmakers to cobble together a two-thirds majority, his thinking goes.
Komeito on board
Komeito will go along with Abe's plan to call an early snap election. "Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gets to make that decision," said a senior party member. "And we are prepared to follow it."
Yamaguchi, who is currently visiting Russia, told reporters that he is "battle ready" even though he was anticipating an election in fall 2018.
The party's support base, Buddhist lay group Soka Gakkai, held a meeting of regional leaders and decided to start preparing for an election on Oct. 22.