Prime minister Shinzo Abe has dissolved the lower house of Japan’s parliament, forcing a snap election in an apparent bid to shore up support for his scandal-plagued government so that he can pursue his policy goals.
His ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for most of the post-Second World War era, may lose some seats but is likely to retain a solid majority with its coalition partner in the 480-seat lower house.
The election, expected on December 14, follows Mr Abe’s decision to postpone a planned sales tax increase after figures released on Monday showed the economy slipped into recession.
He is portraying the election as a referendum on his economic revitalisation policies, known as Abenomics, and the postponement of the tax hike – from the current 8% to 10% – that had been set for next October.
“The battle is now starting,” he said. “We’ll make an all-out fight in this battle so that we all can come back here to resume our responsibility to make Japan a country that shines in the centre of the world.”
The snap poll has puzzled many voters as Mr Abe has been prime minister for only about two years and halfway into his four-year term in the lower house. Calling an election straight after the release of negative economic data is also not usually considered wise. Media polls this week showed the majority of voters opposed to dissolving the lower house.
But Mr Abe may see it as a chance to win a fresh mandate for his rule, which began in December 2012, and to clean the house after recent scandals involving cabinet members dragged down his approval ratings, experts said. Two ministers have resigned and others have come under attack for alleged campaign finance and election law violations.
“It was certainly to prolong his life as prime minister,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a former politician who teaches at Waseda University in Tokyo.
With the opposition parties in disarray, Mr Abe can be confident voters will give the LDP a victory that will keep him in office for another four years. The focus is on the economy, and few voters oppose delaying the tax increase.
Also, a December vote comes before Mr Abe has to tackle contentious issues next year that could erode support for his government, namely legislation to expand Japan’s military role and restart nuclear power plants.
“It’s like pushing a reset button,” said Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Once the election is over, Mr Abe is likely to claim that he’s got a popular mandate and now practically has a blank cheque from the people to continuing to govern for another four years.”
Mr Abe got a rare second shot as prime minister after stepping down just a year into his rocky first term in office in 2006-2007. His support ratings started out high as share prices surged in early 2013, but fell recently as parliament squabbled over campaign finance scandals that forced out two cabinet ministers within weeks of an early September reshuffle.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which led the country for three years until the end of 2012, deeply disappointed voters with its failure to achieve promised goals.
While Mr Abe is not wildly popular among the general public, voters appear to be more willing to trust him and the LDP, which ruled Japan through its high-growth era in the 1960s and into the booming 1980s.
On Monday, Japan said its economy – the world’s third-largest – unexpectedly shrank in the third quarter, the second straight quarterly contraction, which is the common definition of a recession. The slowdown has been largely blamed on a hike in the sales tax in April from 5% to 8%, which dragged on business investment and consumer spending.
Japan has needed to raise taxes to help bring in more revenues to reduce its ballooning national debt, the largest among industrialised nations.