Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is poised to take advantage of a weak political opposition. However, polls suggest there is an opening for a new party formed by Tokyo Mayor Yuriko Koike.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would dissolve parliament's lower house on Thursday for a snap election, seeking a mandate to stick to his tough stance towards a volatile North Korea and rebalance the social security system.
Abe, in power for five years, had been expected to call the election for next month to take advantage of improved support and disarray in the opposition camp.
"I'll demonstrate strong leadership and stand at the forefront to face a national crisis," Abe told reporters, mentioning Japan's fast-ageing population and North Korea.
"This is my responsibility as a leader and my mission as prime minister."
Abe's junior coalition partner Natuo Yamaguchi, the head of the Komeito party, said he understood the election will be held on October 22.
Abe on taxes
Abe said he would redirect some revenue from a planned sales tax hike in 2019 to child care and education rather than paying back public debt, although he added he would not abandon fiscal reform. Rebalancing the spending would offset the potential negative effect on consumption from the tax rise, he said.
"We will turn Japan's social security system into one that responds to all generations by boldly diverting policy resources to resolve the two major concerns - child rearing and (elderly) nursing care – that working generations confront," he said.
North Korea's threats
Abe rejected criticism that holding an election would create a political vacuum at a time of rising tension over North Korea's missile and nuclear arms programme.
"We must not give in to North Korea's threats. By gaining a mandate from the people with this election, I will forge ahead with strong diplomacy," Abe said, adding that now was the time to put more pressure on Pyongyang, not open dialogue.
Abe, whose ratings have risen to around 50 percent from around 30 percent in July, is gambling his ruling bloc can keep its lower house majority even if it loses the two-thirds "super majority" needed to achieve his long-held goal of revising the post-war pacifist constitution to clarify the military's role.
He said his goal was for his coalition to retain a majority in the chamber.
Pyongyang has fired ballistic missiles over Japan twice in the last month and conducted its sixth and biggest nuclear test on September 3.
Support for Abe
According to a weekend poll in business daily Nikkei, 44 percent of voters plan to vote for Abe’s conservative LDP party, while only eight percent said they would side with the main opposition Democratic Party.
Nevertheless, one-fifth of those polled said they were still undecided, potentially opening the door for gains by a new party formed by allies of the popular mayor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike, which will field dozens of candidates.
Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyo Residents First) party humiliated Abe and the LDP in local elections in July, but analysts say the new grouping has not had time to lay national foundations to mount a serious challenge to the prime minister.
Koike also announced her party’s new name "Party of Hope" during a news conference at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building on Monday.
“There is no opposition worthy of the name in Japan. The LDP is a giant among dwarves. It would take a major scandal to derail the Abe express,” said Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan.
Docket full of challenges
The winner of the expected snap election faces a daunting in-tray of challenges ranging from an unprecedented crisis with North Korea to reviving the once world-beating Japanese economy.
Pyongyang has threatened to “sink” Japan into the sea and fired two missiles over the northern island of Hokkaido in the space of less than a month.
Surveys suggest voters approve of nationalist Abe’s firm line on North Korea and the crisis appears to have given him a welcome boost in the polls following a series of scandals, including allegations he improperly favoured a friend in a business deal.
Despite a recent run of growth, the election winner will also have to contend with a sluggish economy, as the heavily indebted country grapples with low birth rates and a shrinking labour force.
Risk of a snap election
“Despite the seemingly favourable backdrop for Abe, there are risks in calling a snap election,” said Yoel Sano, an analyst at BMI research.
At a time of national crisis over North Korea, Japanese voters may see it as a “cynical and opportunistic move” designed to divert attention from a series of scandals that weighed on Abe’s popularity, warned Sano.
Commentator Masao Yora said the election will “create a political vacuum” just when the country needs strong leadership in the face of the threat from Pyongyang.
This “may seem normal in Japan but from abroad, it is difficult to understand,” Yora said.
If re-elected, it would be Abe’s fourth term at the helm of the world’s third top economy.
As part of the third-generation of powerful politicians, Abe appeared to be groomed for power from an early age and he was the country’s youngest prime minister when he first won the top job.
He was the first world leader to cultivate close relations with US President Donald Trump, meeting the tycoon in Trump Towers even before he was inaugurated.