Will Japan’s PM Aso call an early election? Maybe, maybe not


TOKYO — Speculation is swirling that Prime Minister Taro Aso will call a snap election for late November, but the Japanese leader is keeping everyone guessing. Below are some questions and answers on why Aso might — or might not — call an election for parliament’s powerful lower house by the end of the year. Q. No lower house election need be held until September 2009 so why would Aso decide to call one sooner?

— Aso, who took office in September after his predecessor suddenly quit, wants to win a mandate to break a policy deadlock created when opposition parties won control of parliament’s upper house, allowing them to delay legislation and block appointments.

— The ruling bloc is expected to see the huge lower house majority gained in the last poll in 2005 shrink a lot, and Aso is trying to calculate the best time to limit the losses to retain the simple majority needed to keep his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in power. Aso may hope that by stressing economic policies to cope with the global financial crisis he can persuade voters the LDP is the best bet. And if he waits, his own and his party’s popularity ratings may well fall rather than rise. — Ruling party lawmakers are already spending money on unofficial campaigning and the LDP’s junior coalition partner is pressing for an early poll.

Q. Then why wait? — Two factors appear to be making Aso cautious — support ratings for his party and growing concerns over fallout on an already weak Japanese economy from the global financial crisis. Surveys show the LDP and the main opposition Democratic Party are neck-and-neck among voters asked who they will vote for in the next election, so there is a significant risk that the ruling bloc will lose. — Aso has said economic policies take priority over politics, so he could face criticism if he calls an election now. More big falls in global share prices and a spate of negative economic data would likely fan such criticism. Q. If not November, when?

— Several LDP heavyweights have said that if an election is not held in November the next chance is sometime in 2009 because a December election would delay the budget for the fiscal year starting next April. Early in the new year is possible, but Aso may also wait until next fiscal year’s budget is approved in late March. Q. What difference would an election make? — Maybe less than some might think. Many analysts forecast that whoever wins, the next government will be weak and unable to take bold policy initiatives. — Both the LDP and the main opposition Democrats are a mix of lawmakers ranging from proponents of market-friendly reforms to fans of big government, and from security hawks who want Japan to play a bigger global role to those content with the constraints of a pacifist constitution. — At present, both parties stress the need to stimulate the faltering economy, although their plans differ on details, and both have sparked questions about how they would finance their proposals given Japan’s huge public debt — although the Democrats tend to take more heat on that topic.