Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe, has called a snap election to take advantage of opposition disarray and support for his hard line against North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
Speaking at a televised press conference on Monday, Abe said the election would be an appraisal of his handling of the economy and the crisis on the Korean peninsula.
The 22 October election was announced hours after Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, announced the formation of a new party that could give conservative voters an alternative to Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP).
Koike, a former LDP defence minister, said her newly formed Kibo no To (Party of Hope) would be free of special interests.
“I’m launching a new party and I want to be directly involved in it,” Koike said at a televised press conference, adding that she would stay on as governor and head the new party.
“Japan is facing a difficult time considering the situation in North Korea. Economically, the world is making a big move while Japan’s presence is gradually fading. I want the Japanese people to believe that there is hope for tomorrow.”
The party has already attracted MPs from other opposition parties. Mineyuki Fukuda, a junior cabinet minister, said over the weekend he would become the first LDP defector to join Koike.
The vote for the powerful lower house of parliament will be more than a year earlier than expected but comes amid increasing tension in the region.
North Korea has test-fired two ballistic missiles over northern Japan in the past month, triggering emergency drills and warnings from Abe that the country faces an “unprecedented threat” from the regime.
Abe, who has been in office for almost five years, announced new spending on education and childcare as part of a 2 trillion yen ($17.80bn (£13.2bn) stimulus package to be implemented over three years from next April.
He said he would continue to put pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile development. “If North Korea follows the right path, it can develop its economy. But if it doesn’t abandon its missile and nuclear programmes, then it will not have a bright future,” he said.
Abe repeated his opposition to “talks for talks’ sake” with Pyongyang, noting that experience had shown that the regime could not be trusted to keep its promises.
At home, Abe is expected to persevere with a long-held desire to reform Japan’s postwar constitution to allow the country’s military a more active role overseas.
According to a weekend poll by the Nikkei business newspaper, 44% of voters would back the LDP in a general election. Only 8% said they would vote for the main opposition Democratic party, whose poor showing in local elections earlier this summer forced a leadership election.
Significantly, a fifth of those polled by the Nikkei said they were undecided, potentially opening the door for Koike’s party to make an impact in its first national election.
Koike’s party is expected to field dozens of candidates and to cooperate with other opposition parties in an attempt to defeat LDP candidates in marginal seats.
Her regional forerunner to the Hope party, which campaigned only in Tokyo, humiliated Abe and the LDP in assembly elections in July, but analysts say the election will come too soon for the new party to mount a serious challenge to Abe.
“There is no opposition worthy of the name in Japan. The LDP is a giant among dwarves. It would take a major scandal to derail the Abe express,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
Some analysts refused to rule out a Japanese version of the shock results seen in the UK and the US over the past year.
“Abe’s big gamble could yield a big surprise,” said Minoru Morita, a veteran independent political analyst.
Even if the LDP wins, failure to retain the two-third majority it now enjoys in the lower house could halt Abe’s plans to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Abe, a conservative critic of the US-authored constitution, had hoped to use his time in office to revise article 9, which limits Japanese armed forces to a strictly defensive role.
Abe, whose ratings have risen to around 50% from around 30% in July, is gambling that his ruling bloc can keep its lower house majority even if they lose the two-thirds “super majority” needed to achieve his long-held goal.
“Despite the seemingly favourable backdrop for Abe, there are risks in calling a snap election,” said Yoel Sano, an analyst at BMI research.
Given rising tensions over North Korea, voters could see the election as a “cynical and opportunistic” attempt to draw attention away from two cronyism scandals that have embroiled Abe and his wife, Akie.
Senior LDP official Koichi Hagiuda dismissed concerns about a political vacuum during the election campaign.
“Even if there is a contingency during the election, I am confident that we can respond properly,” Hagiuda said on public broadcaster NHK.
Opposition party officials have criticised the election as an attempt by Abe to dodge questioning over the scandals during a session of parliament set to begin on Thursday – the day he is will dissolve the lower house.
Opinion polls suggest voters are largely supportive of Abe’s tough stance on North Korea. In recent days he has called for the proper enforcement of UN security sanctions and said the time for talking with Pyongyang has passed.
The crisis appears to have diluted criticism of his handling of the world’s third biggest economy, particularly the slow progress on structural reforms designed to address Japan’s falling birth rate and shrinking workforce.