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Early elections in Japan: Abe goes all-in

Early dissolution of parliament and early elections will determine the fate of the Japanese premier

Early elections in Japan: Abe goes all-in
Photo: Tass / VEF Photobank
On Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would dissolve the lower house of parliament at an extraordinary session of parliament on Thursday for early elections. Many Japanese observers believe that the prime minister has, in fact, embarked on a risky, high-stakes political game that could determine whether he survives as Japan's leader.

The Japanese media widely replicate the view that Abe decided to dissolve the parliament ahead of schedule and appoint new elections solely in order to avoid criticism at the autumn extraordinary session by the opposition for a number of political scandals in which he was implicated in recent months. Another motive for his hasty actions is the opposition parties' unwillingness to conduct effective election campaigns.

At the press conference, Abe tried to justify the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 22, which are already widely criticized in the country as an attempt to get a public mandate for his decision to direct the proceeds from the planned increase in the consumer tax on improving education and social security in 2019. This controversial decision was made by the Japanese leader, despite the growing public debt as a snowball.

Regarding the country's rapidly declining population, Abe said at a press conference in Tokyo, "We will make significant investments to address the serious challenges facing the working population in areas such as parenting and caring for the elderly." He also added: "I will follow through on this major reform with bold new measures that are estimated to cost around 2 trillion yen." And the prime minister called the crisis on the Korean Peninsula the most urgent foreign policy problem. Regarding these two issues, he specifically said, "My mission as Prime Minister is to show strong leadership capabilities at a time when Japan faces crises stemming from a shrinking population and escalating tensions around North Korea."

The increase in consumer tax from 8% to 10%, planned for October 2019, should increase treasury revenues by more than 5 trillion yen, of which 4 trillion was supposed to be used to pay off the state debt. However, Abe is committed to spending 2 trillion yen annually in additional revenue on new education and welfare programs that include free preschool for children ages 3 to 5, as well as financial assistance to poor young people who would like to receive higher education.

But Abe's announced new cash spending only heightens public concerns about the country's long-term financial stability. The fact is that the total national debt of Japan, which includes the debts of the central government as well as the debts of local governments, currently accounts for more than 200% of GDP. This is the worst indicator among industrialized countries.

As Japanese political analysts point out, early elections at the moment are a risky game that the country's leader cannot afford to lose. Failure in the elections will lead to the fact that his current very weak position in the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will continue to deteriorate. This, in turn, will further question his claim to a historic third term as party chairman. And the third term as party leader will automatically mean Abe's record in the entire history of the country in the prime minister's chair, where he sat in December 2012.

However, the prospects for a confident victory for the current Japanese prime minister were seriously questioned by the unexpected announcement by Tokyo Metropolitan Governor Yuriko Koike that she would create and lead a new nationwide political party called Kibo noto (Party of Hope).

Koike said she hopes to bring "fresh faces" to Japan's domestic political arena, cure Japan's lameness caused by decades of economic malaise, and revive Japan's declining international presence.

A rare female political star in Japan, now rising in the face of the current metropolitan governor, in particular asserts: “If you look at the world, bold reforms are happening everywhere, as demonstrated by the corporate tax cut by Presidents Trump and (French) President Macron. Japan is lagging behind. I believe that Japan needs a force focused on real reform. ”

Koike dismisses criticism of her address that, they say, flirting with national politics will weaken her governor's efforts to reform the capital. The governor counters attacks against her, arguing that her party's influence on the national political scene will have a "synergistic effect" that will benefit the people of Tokyo. Koike said her party will pursue goals such as recruiting more women into productive activities and cutting the salaries of politicians.

The Tokyo Prefectural Assembly elections held in July this year had a stunning effect. On them, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a crushing defeat, and the regional party Tomin fest no kai (Tokyo residents in the first place), then headed by Koike, won 49 of the 50 contested parliamentary seats in the said assembly.

For Abe, the length of his presidency is not the only high stake in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Their outcome will also depend on the success of his progress towards the cherished goal - changing the so-called peaceful constitution of Japan.

The Liberal Democratic Party is currently seeking consensus to revise the country's 70-year-old basic law and to raise the issue of a national referendum in parliament next year with a view to amending it. Abe said he would like to revise the constitution by 2020 to formalize the status of the country's armed forces, which are now called the Self-Defense Forces, as a full-fledged army.

By announcing early elections, Abe jeopardizes the current ruling coalition of the LDP and its junior partner, the Komeito party, at the helm of the state. At the moment, this coalition controls two-thirds of the seats in the lower house of parliament. This is the lower threshold required to initiate a referendum in a country.

According to Japanese analysts, the Liberal Democratic Party will win the announced early parliamentary elections without any big problems. At the same time, in their opinion, there may be surprises associated with the emergence of a new party led by Koike, and the formation of a united front by the opposition against Abe.

In the third decade of September, there was an influx of a number of prominent parliamentarians into the party led by Koike, including the current deputy head of the Cabinet Office, Mineyunki Fukuda. Kyoko Nakayama, the head of the right-leaning Nippon no kokoro (Soul of Japan) party, also intends to move under Koike's wing. According to published figures, the Kibo-noto party, which is being formed by Koike, plans to nominate 57 candidates in 58 single-seat constituencies in and around Tokyo.

Another point of uncertainty is the intention of the opposition bloc to nominate common candidates. In elections to the upper house of parliament last year, four opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party, achieved a historic rally against the ruling coalition by nominating single candidates in all 32 single-mandate constituencies. At the same time, the opposition won 11 seats, demonstrating that their cooperation has brought certain successes.

Japanese political commentators believe that the key to Abe's victory in the upcoming elections lies in the hands of undecided voters, who, according to opinion polls, account for 40,8% of the country's total electorate. In their view, the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula will work in Abe's favor, as hesitant voters rely more on the LDP for foreign policy and crisis resolution.

At the same time, the widespread opinion that the upcoming elections do not solve anything and are even a political farce staged by Abe for his own purposes can dampen voters and lead to a low turnout in the elections. In this case, the LDP could lose a significant number of parliamentary seats, which will inevitably generate increased calls within the party for Abe's resignation from the post of party head in the elections next year.

In this case, the historic record in the form of the third term of office of the head of state will remain an unrealized dream of the Japanese politician. The same fate can await another cherished dream of Abe, closely related to the first - to get from Russian President Vladimir Putin, in whose re-election as president in 2018, few people, including the Japanese prime minister himself, doubt, concessions on the issue of the ownership of the four islands of the southern Kuriles ... They are called their "northern territories" in Japan. Indeed, in resolving the territorial issue in relations with Russia, the Japanese prime minister relies on the personal relations of two charismatic heads of state.
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