• April by-election key to election timing, Shimomura says
  • `Possible' for Abe to change constitution during his term

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to call a general election this year, an aide said, as speculation swirls over whether the prime minister will combine a mandated upper house vote with a poll for the lower house.

Hakubun Shimomura, 61, said in an interview Thursday there was a 90 percent chance parliament would be dissolved for an election by year-end. Shimomura previously aired this opinion in a TV interview last month.

Abe doesn’t have to hold a general election until late 2018, but could choose to renew his mandate sooner to take advantage of relatively strong voter support and a fractured opposition. The election in the less powerful upper chamber will likely be held in July. Even recent scandals in his cabinet and party and a struggling economy haven’t led to a prolonged slump in backing for Abe, now in office for more than three years.

"We can’t exclude the possibility" of a double election, Shimomura, a former education minister, said at the headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo. One of the main factors for Abe’s decision on the timing will be the outcome of an April 24 by-election on the northern island of Hokkaido, he added.

"If we were to lose, the prospect of a double election would be gone," he said, referring to the Hokkaido poll. The LDP has decided against fielding a candidate in a separate by-election in the ancient capital of Kyoto scheduled on the same day, after its representative there resigned over a sex scandal.

Abe could also opt for a year-end election as he did in 2014, Shimomura said, a timetable that would work regardless of whether he decides to go ahead with an increase in consumption tax planned for 2017.

Lawmakers have been debating how to alleviate the blow from the planned 2 percentage-point bump -- the last hike in April 2014 tipped the economy into recession -- by exempting some items such as food, while Etsuro Honda, a senior aide to Abe, has proposed a delay to 2019.

Previous Election

"It’s possible that the increase in sales tax to 10 percent could be delayed from next April. If that’s the case, he will go to the people," he said. "Delaying the sales tax could be a justification for an election." Conversely, he added, if Abe were to proceed with the tax hike, it’d benefit the ruling parties to hold an election before it’s implemented.

While Abe has repeatedly denied he is considering a snap poll, he kept up a similar line before suddenly calling an election in December 2014.

Approval for Abe’s cabinet was steady at 47 percent in a poll published by the Nikkei newspaper on Feb. 29. About 58 percent of respondents said they opposed the planned tax increase, while 33 percent were in favor.

Abe has regularly vowed to make the economy his priority, but this week he told parliament he hoped to fulfill a more controversial goal during his time as leader -- the revision of the U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution, which has been unchanged since its introduction almost 70 years ago. Abe’s term as party leader runs until September 2018.

Article 9

"It is certainly possible, if we focus on issues with which most people agree, rather than on Article 9, which would spark public debate," Shimomura said of Abe’s goal of constitutional reform.

Article 9 renounces war and bans Japan from maintaining armed forces. New clauses enshrining the right to a clean environment and on dealing with emergencies like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami have been suggested as initial additions to the charter.

Forty-six percent of respondents to a poll by the Yomiuri newspaper last month said they didn’t want advocates of constitutional change to win the two-thirds majority needed in both houses of parliament to begin the process. Thirty-six percent said they would be happy for proponents to get the required majority.

Last year’s legislation expanding the role of Japan’s armed forces, based on Abe’s reinterpretation of the constitution, sparked huge demonstrations outside parliament.

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