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Abe eyes dissolving lower house by end of Sept. for Oct. 22 election

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to dissolve the lower house
later this month, with Oct. 22 emerging as a likely date for the
general election, senior government and ruling party officials said
Sunday.

Abe conveyed his plan to seek an early general election to
Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the Komeito party, the junior coalition
partner of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party. The prime minister phoned
Yamaguchi while the latter was in Russia, according to a senior
ruling party official.

Abe has apparently leaned toward gambling on a snap election as
approval ratings for his Cabinet are recovering after a series of
scandals involving ministers, including cronyism allegations leveled
against the prime minister himself, and as the main opposition
Democratic Party remains weak and is reeling from a string of
lawmaker departures.

A House of Representatives election must be held by December
2018, when the four-year terms of current lower house lawmakers
expire. But the prime minister can dissolve the chamber and call a
general election at any time.

Abe told Yamaguchi over the phone that he may dissolve the lower
house at an early stage of an extra Diet session to be convened on
Sept. 28, according to the senior government official.

The prime minister is expected to meet with Yamaguchi on Monday
to discuss the matter before heading to New York to attend the
upcoming U.N. General Assembly session.

During a meeting with Ryu Shionoya, chairman of the LDP Election
Strategy Committee, on Sunday night, Abe suggested he would make a
final decision on whether to dissolve the lower house once he returns
from New York on Sept. 22, according to a person with knowledge of
their conversation.

LDP and Komeito lawmakers are gearing up for a general election
on the assumption that voting will take place on Oct. 22, with
official campaigning starting on Oct. 10. But they have not ruled out
the possibility of voting on Oct. 29, in which case official
campaigning would start on Oct. 17.

Three by-elections currently slated for Oct. 22 would be
replaced by general election contests.

During election campaigning, Abe is likely to stress the need
for strong government to counter the North Korean nuclear and missile
threat. Abe's controversial drive to amend the pacifist Constitution
is also likely to become one of the main issues in the election.

Abe's political clout appeared to be on the wane as public
support for his Cabinet fell sharply and the LDP suffered a huge
setback in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July. But poll
figures have recently been recovering.

In Kyodo News surveys, the approval rating, which was around 36
percent in mid-July, rose to the mid-40s in August and stayed flat
this month.

With major news media reporting the possibility of a general
election as soon as next month, criticism from opposition parties
came fast.

Referring to cronyism allegations embroiling Abe over the
opening of a new veterinary university department and the discount
purchase of public land for an elementary school, Democratic Party
leader Seiji Maehara told reporters on Sunday, "We can only say he is
trying to avoid a grilling in the Diet and protect himself."

Also touching on tensions over North Korea's missile and nuclear
tests, Maehara said, "Does he really mean to create a political
vacuum, setting aside people's lives and properties."

"Although it would be a selfish dissolution, we will resolutely
accept it," he added.

Lawmakers close to Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike are still at the
stage of preparing to launch a new party. Independent lawmaker Masaru
Wakasa, a close aide to Koike, brushed aside the potential impact of
Abe's general election strategy, saying on a TV program Sunday, "We
have been preparing steadily on the premise that the upcoming
by-elections could turn into a general election."

Opposition party lawmakers also scrambled into action. The
leaders of the Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the Social
Democratic Party had planned to hold a meeting on Sunday afternoon
but cancelled it in order to focus on their respective preparations
for the general election, a Democratic Party lawmaker said.

The leaders of the three opposition parties had planned to
discuss whether to form a united front during the extra Diet session.
"As we have dissolution (of the lower house) ahead, the environment
has changed. It won't have any meaning if we discuss an alliance in
parliament now," the lawmaker said.

According to sources close to the matter, Abe has instructed LDP
members to analyze the situation in electoral constituencies across
the country instead of just the three constituencies in Aomori,
Niigata and Ehime prefectures where the by-elections are scheduled on
Oct. 22.

"Dissolving the lower house is the prime minister's prerogative.
We must accept it no matter when it happens," said Koichi Hagiuda, a
lawmaker close to Abe, during a TV program on Sunday. But he added
that if Abe decides to call an election, he will explain his reasons
to the public.

Abe dissolved the lower house in November 2014 and led the
ruling coalition to a sweeping victory in the subsequent election in
December.

Wataru Takeshita, general council chairman of the LDP, told a
party convention Saturday in the western Japan city of Tokushima,
"All lower house members are beginning to feel that (the general
election) will not be far ahead," given that nearly three years have
already passed in the four-year term of the current lower house.

Another senior LDP lawmaker speculated that if the ruling
coalition wins, the Abe government may be able to dodge a further
grilling over the cronyism allegations.

The secretaries general and election strategy committee heads of
the LDP and the Komeito party will meet Monday to discuss how to
prepare for the upcoming election. (Sept. 18)