Japan defends election over 'waste of money' criticism

TOKYO - Japan's government on Wednesday hit back against charges of profligacy over the US$500 million (S$650 million) cost of a general election Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called, more than two years ahead of schedule.

Abe said Tuesday he was putting off an expected sales tax rise and calling a snap poll, to seek approval for the delay, insisting the issue of revenue-raising "is important in a parliamentary democracy".

"Because we made a very important decision concerning people's everyday lives and the economy, I decided that I should seek a fresh mandate," Abe told a televised press conference.

"No taxation without representation," Abe said, echoing the slogan of the American War of Independence from Britain.

But critics jumped on the wastefulness of a nationwide vote less than two years into a four-year term, with many pointing to Japan's mountainous national debt and its still-ruined coastline, more than three years after a massive tsunami hit.

The government "should launch economic policies... rather than spending 60 billion yen (S$665 million) on the election," Keiichiro Asao, head of the minor opposition Your Party, said ahead of the announcement.

Takuya Tasso, governor of Iwate prefecture, one of the regions hit hardest by the 2011 tsunami that also sparked the Fukushima nuclear crisis, said the central government had its priorities wrong.

"Creating a political vacuum at a time when we are still in need of economic stimulus should never happen," he told the mass-selling Yomuiri Shimbun.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that Abe was within his rights to go to the polls early.

Dissolving the lower house and calling a snap election "is written in our constitution, and I think it's natural for a prime minister to ask his voters" for their opinion.

The tax hike Abe delayed was the second part of an increase in VAT, which was written into law under the last government, with the support of parliament.

His decision came after figures showed Japan had slid into recession, largely because consumers took fright after the first rise in April, reining in their spending.

But commentators have pointed out that the legislation contained provision for the serving prime minister to suspend the rise if he judged the economy was not in good enough shape, and say Abe needs no extra authority from voters.

Most agree that the election is a fig leaf to cover Abe's attempt to consolidate his own position within his fractious Liberal Democratic Party, and to fend off challengers in a party leadership election scheduled for September next year.

However, he also runs the risk of undermining his authority if his coalition's majority is reduced too much.