Why Japan’s Abe Is Gambling on an Early Election

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved parliament to set the stage for an Oct. 22 election, testing his iron grip over the powerful lower house in the world’s third-largest economy. The 63-year-old Abe plans to stay in office if his coalition retains a simple majority -- putting him on course to keep his job through 2020 and become the longest-serving leader in the country’s history. He’s facing a surprise test: A new party headed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike sprang up to offer a last-ditch challenge.

1. Why call an election now?

Abe is taking advantage of a recent recovery in public support and an opposition in disarray -- he need not have called the poll until December next year. Renewing his coalition’s two-thirds’ majority would allow him a shot at achieving his ambition of changing Japan’s pacifist constitution. Standing in his way is Koike, a 65-year-old former newscaster whom Abe has called “a formidable opponent.” She has already triggered the virtual collapse of the main opposition Democratic Party, with many members expected to run for her Party of Hope. Smaller opposition parties are also considering whether to cooperate with Koike.

2. What are the main points of contention?

Abe is seeking approval for his plan to divert revenue from an upcoming hike in the sales tax to a 2 trillion yen ($18 billion) package aimed at reducing the burden on families of paying for education. This will mean putting off a plan to rein in the country’s swollen debt. Koike’s Party of Hope has called for the sales tax rise to be put on hold because of potential risks to the economy -- past increases have sparked recessions -- and called for cost cuts to eliminate waste. Abe also wants a mandate for his stance on North Korea, which focuses on implementing sanctions strictly, rather than opening a dialogue. Koike has criticized him for creating a political vacuum as regional tensions run high.

3. How else is the new party different?

Koike’s party wants a more open government and will seek to phase out nuclear power. While the 2011 Fukushima disaster undermined public confidence in atomic energy, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party plans to have nuclear account for up to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity mix by 2030.

4. What’s at stake for the economy?

Abe’s focus on the economy helped him make a surprise return to power five years ago after a failed year in office a decade earlier. While his program, dubbed Abenomics, has failed to reach his target of overcoming deflation, or a drop in consumer prices, the economy has seen six straight quarters of growth and unemployment is less than 3 percent.

5. How serious is Koike’s challenge?

Abe is likely to fall short of the 310 seats needed for a two-thirds majority in parliament, says Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director of the Asian Forum Japan think tank. But the new party is hampered by the fact that Koike is tested out of Tokyo, says she’s not planning to run in the election herself. Abe is also fighting back by comparing the Party of Hope to other new political groups that gained widespread support in the 1990s and 2000s, but did not last long.

6. What happens on the day?

Voters must make two choices at the ballot box: one for their local constituency and another for a proportional representation bloc. Voting closes at 8 p.m. and major TV networks will reveal the results of their exit polls at that point. The total number of seats is set to be cut to 465 from 475 in this election, part of a reform plan aimed at reducing the disproportionate weight given to rural areas. As of Sept. 26, the LDP and its associates had 287 seats and its coalition partner Komeito 35, for a total of nearly 68 percent. The Democratic Party was the second-largest party, with 87 seats in cooperation with the Club of Independents.

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