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UPDATED: December 2, 2014 NO. 49 DECEMBER 4, 2014
The Political Tricks of Abe
Japan's leader hopes to salvage his power by way of an early election
By Zhou Yongsheng

On November 20, Abe claimed that there were several important reasons behind the decision to dissolve the parliament. He said that he needs to reach out to voters as his administration prepares to tackle some difficult challenges next year. His policies will require the support of voters, including a new mandate for economic reforms and the delay of an unpopular increase in the sales tax to 10 percent, said Abe according to Japan's broadcaster NHK.

These excuses are weak. If Abe wants to push his Abenomics or delay the second increase in the sales tax till October 2017, there is no obstacle in the parliament. The lower house is entirely under the control of the LDP. In the election of December 2012, the Abe-led LDP won victory by gaining a majority of 294 out of a total of 480 seats. Any policy initiative of Abe is able to pass in the parliament. Thus, dissolution of the parliament seems an unnecessary move, which is questioned by many representatives from both the LDP and parties out of power. For example, Local Revitalization Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is also a powerful contender for the LDP's leadership, said that Abe should clarify the reasons for the dissolution.

Real purposes

A very tactical arrangement lies behind Abe's dissolution of the lower house.

Currently, Abe's administration maintains a support rating of 40 to 50 percent, according to a poll conducted by local media. Unlike the LDP, other parties, including the major opposition Democratic Party of Japan, do not have enough time to organize effective election campaigns. Though it risks losing some seats in the parliament due to a gloomy economy, the LDP still have a large chance of winning the election. In that case, its ruling position will last until at least 2018, which, in turn, will secure Abe's term as prime minister.

Furthermore, Abe might hope to clear the stain of corruption from his cabinet and rebuild its reputation through the snap election.

In September, Abe reshuffled his cabinet. But soon the new cabinet was jolted by scandals involving Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima.

Obuchi's political fund reports were found to have a large shortage totaling around tens of millions of yen for theater outings related to her cabinet appointee's activities and money irregularly used to design an office and clothing shop run by her relatives.

In addition, a senior official of the Democratic Party of Japan has filed a criminal complaint with prosecutors against Matsushima for alleged election law violations.

Obuchi and Matsushima submitted resignation letters to Abe on October 20. On the same day, Abe appointed Yoichi Miyazawa to replace Obuchi.

However, a political fund report from Miyazawa uncovered an expenditure of $170 at a bar that features sex shows. The report stated that the money was related to political activities. Though Miyazawa told Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga that he didn't attend the event, the press and the public have reason to continue investigating him and may uncover even more allegations. Undoubtedly, the Abe administration faces risks of falling approval ratings if it does not take measures.

Abe is skilled at using well-planned tactics to achieve political objectives. In the face of a sluggish recovery and political scandals, he must do something to save his struggling cabinet.

In Japan, if approval ratings remain low, a prime minister will inevitably step down from his post. Support is the lifeline of a Japanese prime minister. Abe is an ambitious politician. Though he has not managed to put forward effective strategies to stop the economy from sliding into recession, Abe can use unusual methods to maintain support. Hence, Abe's decision to call a snap election at this time may be a shrewd political calculation.

The author is a professor at the Institute of International Relations under the China Foreign Affairs University

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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