Japan set for snap election next month

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PM Abe seeking mandate for his tough stance against North Korea

TOKYO Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would dissolve parliament's lower house on Thursday for a snap election, seeking a mandate to stick to his tough stance towards a volatile North Korea and rebalance the social security system.

Mr Abe, in power for five years, was expected to call the election next month to take advantage of improved support and disarray in the opposition camp.

"I'll demonstrate strong leadership and stand at the forefront to face a national crisis," he said, mentioning Japan's fast-ageing population and the threat from North Korea.

"This is my responsibility as leader and my mission as prime minister."

Mr Natsuo Yamaguchi, the head of Abe's junior coalition partner the Komeito party, said he understood the election would be on Oct 22.

Mr Abe said he would redirect some revenue from a planned sales tax hike in 2019 to childcare and education rather than paying back public debt, although he added he would not abandon fiscal reform.

Rebalancing the spending would offset the potential negative effect on consumption from the tax rise, he said.

"We will turn Japan's social security system into one that responds to all generations by boldly diverting policy resources to resolve the two major concerns - child rearing and nursing care (for the elderly) - that working generations confront," he said.

Mr Abe rejected criticism that holding an election now would create a political vacuum at a time of rising tension over North Korea's missile and nuclear arms programme.

Pyongyang has fired missiles over Japan twice in the last month and conducted its biggest nuclear test on Sept 3.

"We must not give in to North Korea's threats. By gaining a mandate from the people with this election, I will forge ahead with strong diplomacy," Mr Abe said, adding that now is the time to put more pressure on Pyongyang, not open dialogue.

Mr Abe, whose ratings have risen to around 50 per cent from around 30 per cent in July, is gambling on his ruling bloc to keep its lower house majority even if it loses the two-thirds "super majority" needed to achieve his long-held goal of revising the post-war pacifist constitution to clarify the military's role.

He said his goal was for his coalition to retain a majority in the chamber.

A survey by the Nikkei business daily showed 44 per cent of voters planned to vote for Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) versus 8 per cent for the main opposition Democratic Party and another 8 per cent for a new party launched by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

The Nikkei poll was more positive for Mr Abe's prospects than a Kyodo news agency survey that showed his LDP garnering 27.7 per cent support, with 42.2 per cent undecided.

Mr Abe's image as a strong leader has bolstered his ratings amid the North Korea crisis and overshadowed opposition criticism of the premier for suspected cronyism scandals that eroded his support earlier this year.

An LDP internal survey showed seats held by the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito could fall to 280 from the 323 they now hold, the Nikkei reported on Saturday. - REUTERS