TOKYO -- Top officials in the Japanese ruling coalition have openly objected to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to postpone a tax hike without holding a lower house election to seek a mandate, a development that could threaten his political dominance.
Abe chose to push back a planned consumption tax increase from April 2017 to October 2019. He sought the cooperation of Liberal Democratic Party officials at a meeting Monday, citing the consensus on avoiding another financial crisis that came out of the recent Group of Seven summit.
The prime minister seems to be driven by worry about Abenomics, the economic program that has buoyed his approval rating, and by a need to keep a tight grip on the reins of his government.
Mind made up
"I'm determined to use all available policy tools to rev up the engine of Abenomics again," Abe told reporters Friday after the summit. A tax hike could have put an exit from deflation further out of reach, leaving Abenomics to be branded a failure -- an outcome the prime minister wanted to avoid at all costs.
Abe scrambled to build a consensus within the leadership of the ruling coalition ahead of the LDP meeting. "The prime minister is determined," LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura said after speaking with him, suggesting that opinion was converging as planned. Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of coalition partner Komeito, made a similar observation.
Abe pushed as hard as he did to shape opinion in the government and the ruling coalition partly because of frustration smoldering in the ranks.
Abe informed Finance Minister Taro Aso and LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki of his decision on the tax hike Saturday evening, after all the events surrounding the summit had wrapped up. Both argued that Abe should dissolve the lower house and call a snap election, as was done with the previous delay in November 2014. A regular upper house election is slated for July.
Aso attended an LDP meeting with Tanigaki in the city of Toyama the next day. The party won in 2014 having pledged to raise the tax, Aso said, arguing that "not putting the question to the public again with a lower house election would be inconsistent."
As with the tax hike, the question of whether to hold simultaneous upper and lower house elections has much to do with Abe's authority. The prime minister waited until the last moment to decide, trying to determine whether the ruling coalition might lose the upper house or its two-thirds majority in the lower house.
'Rule by fear'
Aso "said I should dissolve [the lower house] if we're going to postpone the tax hike, but you're not going to ask that much of me, are you?" Abe said Monday to an LDP official leery of a delay, trying to use Aso's comments to win the lawmaker over.
The prime minister's top-down style runs the risk of blowback. His decision was all but written in stone, an LDP official complained. "This would absolutely not get support if it were anyone but Mr. Abe," the official groused.
The view that the government should go the same route as in 2014 and call a snap election still has currency within the LDP. "Using the right to dissolve the Diet to stifle internal [dissent] is rule by fear," a young lawmaker argued.
The previous tax hike delay had met with little apparent grumbling from within the ruling parties. Abe finally won over Aso at a hotel here Monday evening. But the fact that multiple top officials in his government brought up the prime minister's dissolution power is itself unusual in a political system dominated by Abe.