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Abe calls snap election in Japan

Japan's prime minister has called a snap election and put off a sales tax hike planned for next year as the country struggles to fend off recession.

Shinzo Abe said he had decided to postpone a second tax hike until 2017 after the economy slumped into recession following a tax increase in April, showing it is too weak for another increase.

He said he will dissolve parliament on Friday and the election is scheduled for mid-December.

The ruling Liberal Democrats have a solid majority and hope to further consolidate their power at a time when opposition parties are weak and in disarray.

Delaying the tax hike will slow Japan's work on repairing its tattered public finances but Mr Abe said the risk to the economy was a bigger threat.

Mr Abe said he would step down if his strategy to revive the ailing economy falls flat.

"I've been pondering this problem," he said. "Even if we raise the tax as planned, tax revenue will not increase if the economy does not recover."

He said public approval was needed to ensure the success of his Abenomics policies of extreme monetary easing, heavy government spending and economic reforms.

"I need to hear the voice of the people," Mr Abe said. "I will step down if we fail to keep our majority because that would mean our Abenomics is rejected."

He described his strategies as the "only path" for Japan to escape its economic malaise.

"Some people say Abenomics has failed or it's not performing well," he said. "But what else can we do? I have yet to hear of a better idea."

Japan has bubbled with speculation about an early election since early this month.

Last week, the Liberal Democrats were coaching new politicians on campaign strategies and opposition parties rushed to discuss possible new alliances.

Pre-election debates by party leaders are in the works and new campaign posters have gone up in Tokyo neighbourhoods.

Mr Abe secured a rare second term as prime minister, having stepped down just a year into his rocky first term in office in 2006-2007.

His support ratings started out high as share prices surged in early 2013 but have fallen recently. Parliament got bogged down in squabbles over campaign finance scandals that led to resignations of two of his cabinet ministers within weeks of an early September reshuffle.

By dissolving parliament for an election Mr Abe can clear the slate and once again reshuffle his cabinet, said Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based analyst and fellow at Temple University Japan.

He described the sales tax hike and policy of lavish fiscal and monetary easing as "mutually contradictory economic programmes".

The decision to push ahead with April's increase in the sales tax, has been judged a miscalculation by some of Mr Abe's advisers, including Koichi Hamada, a former Yale University economics professor who helped draft his policies.

"It looks like the Japanese economy was hit by some body blow," he said.

Last year, Mr Hamada lobbied for a more gradual increase in the tax rate. But he shrugs off suggestions by opposition politicians and other critics that the backsliding of the economy represents a "failure" of Abenomics.

A recent central bank decision to expand monetary easing is helping, he said. "The level of the consumption tax is not so high, but the increase was rather drastic. It really counteracted Abenomics."

So far, despite windfall profit gains from a weakening in the Japanese yen and stronger share prices, Japanese corporations have not delivered the sorts of wage increases needed to help households keep up with rising costs for food, utilities and other necessities.

Apart from putting off the next sales tax hike, to 10%, Mr Abe reportedly plans to announce a new stimulus that would be focused mainly on help for struggling households and businesses.

He is gambling that in the election, likely to be held on December 14, the public will reward those moves, despite the recent performance of the economy.

He is also betting the decision will not undermine confidence in Japan's ability to finance its public debt, which is more than twice the size of the economy.

Eventually, Japan must boost taxes to cover rising costs for health and elder care in this aging society.

"The Japanese government is doing a kind of Ponzi game," Mr Hamada said. "Usually a Ponzi scheme doesn't work in the private economy, but the government always has the next generation of taxpayers to rely on."

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