Japan's election: A new challenger and what's at stake

A snap election for Japan's parliament next month gained more drama after the populist governor of Tokyo formed a political party this week to challenge Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party. Abe's move to hold elections a year earlier than required is seen as a bid to strengthen his position as leader of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party, so he can extend his premiership next year. A look at what's at stake in the Oct. 22 elections for the lower house of Parliament:

Q: The four-year term for the 475-member lower house ends in December 2018. Why call an election now?

A: Several factors made the timing appear relatively good, and Abe apparently concluded that the risks of waiting outweighed the risks of an election. His support rating, which had plunged to below 30 percent after a series of scandals and missteps in the summer, has rebounded to the 50 percent range. The leading opposition party, the Democrats, is in even more disarray than usual after its leader resigned in late July. And a quick election limits the time Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's new Party of Hope has to organize and line up candidates. Yu Uchiyama, a University of Tokyo politics professor, says Abe is taking advantage of the unprepared opposition as he seeks to prolong his leadership. Dissolving the lower house on the day it reconvenes, which is what Abe did, has another advantage: It denies the opposition an opportunity to renew questioning him directly in public debate.

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Q: What are Abe's prospects of winning the election, and then extending his leadership next year?

A: Most analysts expect the ruling party to retain a majority, but the Party of Hope has done unexpectedly well in some early polling, and could take some seats away from Abe's Liberal-Democratic Party. The LDP could well lose the two-thirds majority it holds with its coalition partner, the smaller Komei party. Still, a solid LDP victory would bolster Abe's chances of a third term as party president in the next leadership election in September 2018. "Mr. Abe simply wants to win. He wants to maintain a comfortable majority ahead of the party leadership election next year," said political analyst Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. A third term seemed assured early this year, but the plunge in his popularity this summer chipped away at his once rock-solid position. A big-enough election victory would help him keep at bay potential challengers, such as former Cabinet members Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba.

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Q: What's at stake?

A: If he wins another three-year term as party leader, he could continue as prime minister through the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. That would give him more time to pursue his longtime goal of revising Japan's postwar, U.S.-drafted pacifist Constitution, a contentious issue that requires approval by two-thirds of parliament and a public referendum. The election, if it follows previous ones, will largely focus on the economy. Abe on Monday pledged more government spending on education and child care by using part of the revenue from a planned 2019 consumption tax hike. Abe said he is seeking a mandate for the proposal, and for his defense policy toward North Korea's escalating missile and nuclear threat. Experts say he may keep constitutional revision under the carpet during the campaign to avoid shooing away voters, and only push it after the election.

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