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Japan's prime minister calls snap election

Shinzo Abe hopes to capitalise on a weak and fractured opposition to sweep back into power.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo.

JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER Shinzo Abe today called a snap election, seeking a fresh term at the helm of the world’s third-largest economy as tensions with nearby North Korea reach fever-pitch.

Abe hopes to capitalise on a weak and fractured opposition to sweep back into power, as polls show him regaining ground after a series of scandals.

“I will dissolve the House of Representatives on the 28th” of September, Abe told reporters, a precursor to a general election. The prime minister did not give a date for the vote but it is widely expected to be 22 October.

Surveys suggest voters approve of nationalist Abe’s hardline stance on North Korea, which fired two missiles over the country in the space of a month and has threatened to “sink” Japan.

“The election, which is the core of democracy, should not be influenced by the threats of North Korea,” stressed Abe, 63.

“Rather, by holding an election, I want to seek a public mandate regarding (the government’s) handling of the North Korean issues,” he added.

‘Difficult time’

According to a weekend poll in business daily Nikkei, 44% of Japanese plan to vote for Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), while only 8% favoured 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 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 a national foundation to mount a serious challenge to the prime minister.

Japan Politics Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike speaks during a press conference in Tokyo. Source: Koji Sasahara/AP/Press Association Images

In an apparent bid to steal Abe’s limelight, former TV anchorwoman Koike went before the cameras just hours before his news conference to announce she was creating a national political party called “Kibo no To” (Party of Hope).

“Japan is facing a difficult time considering the situation in North Korea. Economically, the world is making a big move while Japan’s presence is gradually declining,” said Koike.

Can we continue letting (the existing lawmakers) handle politics?

But Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan, said there was “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,” he said.

‘Political vacuum’

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.

The North Korea crisis appears to have given the hawkish Abe 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 a low birth rate and a shrinking labour force.

Abe said Japan’s “biggest problem” was a declining number of children in an ageing society.

He pledged to use some of the proceeds of a planned hike in sales tax to fund education and childcare, rather than drawing down Japan’s massive debt, resulting in an effective stimulus package of around two trillion yen (€15 billion).

“I want people’s support. I plan to compile a new economic package by the end of the year,” the prime minister said.

© – AFP 2017

Read: India is set to get its first bullet train thanks to Japan

Read: ‘Flee into a building or a basement’: North Korea ballistic missile launch triggers high alert in Japan

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