By MARI YAMAGUCHI Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida dissolved the lower house of parliament Thursday, paving the way for elections that will be the country’s first of the pandemic.
At stake in the Oct. 31 polls will be how Japan faces a potential coronavirus resurgence and revives its battered economy, and whether Kishida’s government can emerge from the shadow of the nearly nine years that his conservative party have already held power — which some describe as dominating to the point of muzzling diverse views.
Speaking Thursday with reporters, Kishida sought to depict his governing party as the only one capable of protecting Japan from the security threats in the region.
“Opposition parties cannot even reach consensus on the Japan-U.S. security alliance and the Self-Defense Force, and we cannot let them run this country,” he said. “The upcoming election is about choosing the future of Japan.”
Kishida said he is seeking a mandate for his policies after being elected prime minister by parliament only 10 days ago.
“I would like the people to choose who can show the future vision of a post-corona society,” he added.
Kishida replaced Yoshihide Suga, who lasted just a year as prime minister and whose support was battered by his perceived high-handed approach in dealing with the coronavirus and insistence on holding the Tokyo Olympics despite rising virus cases.
Japan’s new leader, tasked with rallying support for the incumbent party, has promised to pursue a politics of “trust and empathy.”
In his first policy speech last week, Kishida promised to strengthen the country’s pandemic response, revive the economy and bolster defenses against threats from China and North Korea. He also sought to gradually expand social and economic activities by using vaccination certificates and more testing.
Four main opposition parties have agreed to cooperate on some policies, such as addressing gaps between the rich and the poor that they say widened during the government of Shinzo Abe — the premier preceding Suga from the same ruling party.
After Tadamori Oshima, the speaker of the house, announced the legislature’s dissolution, the 465 lawmakers in the more powerful lower chamber stood up, shouted “banzai” three times and left. Official campaigning for all 465 newly vacant seats begins Tuesday.
The last lower house election was held in 2017 under Abe, a staunch conservative who pulled the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party further to the right while becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
In that vote, the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito together won 310 seats, or two-thirds of the chamber.
Opposition parties have struggled to win enough votes to form a government after the brief rule of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan in 2009-2012. But weaker support for Suga, under whom the ruling party lost three parliamentary by-elections and a local vote this year, might create an opening for opposition contenders.
Yukio Edano, head of Japan’s opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, told NHK public television that he hopes to make the election “a first step toward changing politics.”
Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People, criticized Kishida for dissolving the lower house so early in his tenure. “It is unclear on what policies he is seeking with a mandate from the voters,” Tamaki said.
He said his party will propose economic policies that seek higher pay for workers.
“We want to create a political situation where ruling and opposition blocs are in close competition,” Tamaki said.