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Shinzo Abe Ponders Political Oblivion

Abe OblivionSNA (Tokyo) — When a colleague recently asked us if we’d heard the rumor that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was considering a snap election in December, our first response was to wave it off as quite implausible. As we began to read such stories in the Japanese media, our second reaction was to view it as a likely bluff that the prime minister is using to discipline his own restive party members over the consumption tax hike issue. But now, at least some Japanese news organizations sound pretty sure that the December election will actually occur, and statements from ruling party lawmakers seem to back this analysis up.

Okay, we are surprised. But what factors would make the prime minister believe that he should hold an early election now instead of a more conventional choice, such as the latter half of 2015?

The answer seems to be that Abe has grown pessimistic about where his government’s public approval ratings are likely to be heading next year, and so he may figure that his best chance at having a six-year premiership is to hold general elections while he still has enough residual popularity to pull off a major victory.

The prime minister’s greatest asset, of course, is that the opposition parties are woefully unprepared for a general election, having failed to act with much urgency over the past two years to get themselves into fighting shape. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Liberal Democratic Party is still the only political party in this country that is currently able to govern in a halfway competent manner.

So, in that sense, Prime Minister Abe and his circle may feel that they can’t really lose this fight.

Are they correct about that? Well, if the question is, can the Liberal Democratic Party possibly lose a governing majority if a snap election were held in December, then the answer is that their calculation is almost certainly correct — that the opposition is not really in the position to win a parliamentary majority at this time.

However, Shinzo Abe himself is more vulnerable than the ruling party as a whole. It will be his choice alone to call the early snap election, and should it result in the party losing a significant number of its lawmakers, then the decision could wound the prime minister politically. This is doubly true because the lost lawmakers would likely come mainly from the ranks of the first-term “Abe Children” who are his biggest supporters within the party.

Abe also faces a serious problem in that there is no obvious reason for him call a general election now. There is no credible cause to rally around. The opposition parties could easily be successful in painting such a snap election as a cynical ploy hatched by the prime minister for his own purposes, rather than an election needed for any legitimate public purpose.

LDP elder Takeshi Noda has already publicly warned Prime Minister Abe that calling an election now would be “a mistake.”

It’s hard for us to disagree with Noda’s analysis. Should Abe carry out another landslide victory, it would likely only boost his position for a few months before his approval ratings would begin to dip again. And should he fail to win another landslide, he will have shot himself in the foot.

All said then, if we are surprised that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would really call a December general election, it’s because we also find it to be a mistake from the point of view of his own political welfare. We’d give better than even odds that its main effect would be to accelerate Abe’s fall from power and his replacement by another LDP politician.

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