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Abe says he'll decide on snap Japan election after US trip

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he'll decide on calling a snap election after he returns from a trip to the US, confirming media reports that he was considering calling a vote more than a year early.

[TOKYO] Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he'll decide on calling a snap election after he returns from a trip to the US, confirming media reports that he was considering calling a vote more than a year early.

"I'll refrain from answering each and every question about a dissolution of parliament, but I'd like to decide when I return to Japan," Mr Abe told reporters at Haneda airport before boarding a plane to New York, in comments broadcast by NHK.

He's scheduled to attend meetings at the United Nations before returning to Japan on Sept 22.

Abe intends to dissolve parliament on Sept 28 to pave way for an election on Oct 22, Yomiuri newspaper reported on Monday, without saying where it got the information. Sankei newspaper reported on Sunday that the vote is probable on Oct 29.

Calling an election before one is due at the end of 2018 would allow Mr Abe to seize on opposition disarray and growing support for his handling of the North Korea crisis.

His approval ratings have recovered following a series of scandals, with an NHK poll last week showing that approval for his ruling coalition exceeded disapproval for the first time in three months.

North Korea's recent spate of missile tests has unnerved Japanese voters, and more than two-thirds of respondents to the NHK poll approve of Mr Abe's strong line on the isolated nation.

The main opposition Democratic Party appears to be unraveling with the resignation of several members since a new leader was voted in earlier this month.

"The Democratic Party is in terrible shape, so there is no opposition to Abe," Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo, said by email.

"Crises such as that on the Korean Peninsula are generally good for incumbents. You can look like you're in charge."

A September poll showed Mr Abe's LDP had 37.7 per cent of support, up from 30.7 per cent in July. Support for the Democratic Party was 6.7 per cent, and no other national opposition political party had a higher rating, highlighting the weakness of existing opposition facing Mr Abe.

Seiji Maehara, head of the Democratic Party, said that an election at a time when North Korea is threatening Japan risks creating a political vacuum and that Mr Abe was seeking to escape questioning in parliament surrounding scandals, Kyodo reported.

Akimasa Ishikawa, an LDP backbencher, said if Abe decides to call an election at the re-opening of parliament on Sept 28. it could be "good timing".

"With North Korea continuing to launch missiles, Japan's peace and security are being threatened," Mr Ishikawa said.

"If parliament intends to continue with vacuous scandal attacks, rather than discussing security, we must draw a line under that."

Even so, some members of Mr Abe's party are more skeptical. One senior official, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private, said a snap election may be a gamble because the ruling coalition could lose its two-thirds majority.

This could slow the debate on changing the pacifist constitution to make clear the legitimacy of the nation's armed forces, the official said.

"There is also a real chance that a snap election would lead to his undoing," said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"Calling a premature election more than a year ahead of the end of the term is purely on the basis of self-interested political calculation."

A snap election may speed up the formation of a new national political party linked to Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to face Mr Abe's LDP, according to NHK, citing comments by lawmaker Masaru Wakasa.

Mr Abe suffered a heavy defeat in an election for the local Tokyo assembly in July at the hands of a new party formed by Ms Koike.

This was blamed on cronyism scandals that tarnished Mr Abe's image. Ms Koike's Tomin First (Tokyo Residents First) party has yet to create a strong national base.

Ms Koike spoke at an event organised by Wakasa in Tokyo Saturday, and said Japan needs "a new perspective rather than depending on politics constrained by many ties," according to a Jiji report.

Wakasa said his grouping is preparing for an election and would be able to stand some candidates in a general election.

Mr Abe's consideration of a snap election may in part be influenced by discussion of a new national party associated with Koike, according to NHK.

Temple University's Dujarric said that Ms Koike wouldn't have time to prepare a challenge to Mr Abe.