Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's call for a snap election next month to seek a mandate for his decision to delay a second sales tax hike is just a cover for his bid to win another four years in office, say political watchers.
Mr Abe told a press conference on Tuesday that the 18-month postponement of the tax hike to April 2017 was a major policy change that warranted seeking the people's endorsement anew. His government's term has another two years to go.
He is due to dissolve the Lower House today for a general election on Dec 14.
But political commentator Atsuo Ito disagreed with Mr Abe.
The sales tax law, Mr Ito pointed out, contains a clause that allows the government to change the hike schedule depending on economic conditions.
"So it's not a major policy change. Abe just wants four more years to give him time to do what he really wants - revise the Constitution," he said.
Veteran political journalist Soichiro Tahara, echoing a view of many observers, said Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) stands to minimise its losses if an election is held soon.
"Given the disarray in the opposition, even if the LDP does not win more seats, it is not likely to lose very many," he said.
The largest opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, is in no position to take on the LDP, while several smaller parties are in the process of regrouping.
In the last election in 2012, the LDP won a whopping 294 seats in the 480-seat Lower House.
Due to an electoral revamp, the number of seats up for grabs has been reduced to 475, so it needs 238 seats for a simple majority.
"The LDP can lose up to, say, 20 seats and still claim a victory," said Mr Tahara.
Mr Abe is also suspected of trying to use an election victory to strengthen his hand when he submits controversial Bills next year in Parliament, including for restarting nuclear power plants and giving Japan's military the right to collective self-defence through a constitutional reinterpretation. The influential Asahi Shimbun daily warns that Mr Abe wants a "free hand to do what he wants".
The Prime Minister is also suspected of hoping to use the election to consolidate his own power base in the fractious LDP ahead of a party poll next September.
Even if the LDP wins another four years in the Lower House, he needs to be re-elected party chief in order to continue as premier.
But calling a general election now is not without risks.
Support for his government has fallen to its lowest since Mr Abe came to power two years ago.
The latest popularity poll by the Asahi gives him a 42 per cent support rating, down seven points from the previous month.
In the same survey, only 4 per cent of respondents said their lives had improved as a result of the premier's economic policies dubbed Abenomics.
Economic data released on Monday showed negative growth for two successive quarters, pushing the economy back into recession, as personal consumption, dampened by the April sales tax hike from 5 to 8 per cent, has not recovered.
Opposition politicians see the recession as proof that Abenomics has failed. "The main issue of the election," said the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, "will be how the electorate assesses Abenomics."
Opposition politicians have criticised Mr Abe for wasting public funds on an election. Mr Keiichiro Asao, head of the small Your Party, said earlier this week that the government should "launch economic policies... rather than spend 60 billion yen (S$665 million) on the election".
This article was first published on November 21, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.