Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was widely expected to call a snap election Monday, hoping to capitalise on rising support as tensions with nearby North Korea reach fever pitch.
Voters in the world's third-largest economy could go to the polls as soon as October 22, more than a year earlier than expected, as Abe seeks to take advantage of a political opposition in disarray. According to a weekend poll in business daily Nikkei, 44 percent of voters plan to vote for Abe's conservative LDP party, while only eight percent said they would side with the main opposition Democratic Party.
North Korea launches missile over Japan
Nevertheless, one fifth of those polled said they were still undecided, potentially opening the door for gains by a new party formed by allies of the popular mayor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike, which will field dozens of candidates. Koike's Tomin First no Kai (Tokyo Residents First) party humiliated Abe and the LDP in local elections in July, but analysts say the new grouping has not had time to lay national foundations to mount a serious challenge to the prime minister.
"There is no opposition worthy of the name in Japan. The LDP is a giant among dwarves. It would take a major scandal to derail the Abe express," said Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan.
The winner of the expected snap election faces a daunting in-tray of challenges ranging from an unprecedented crisis with North Korea to reviving the once world-beating Japanese economy. Pyongyang has threatened to 'sink' Japan into the sea and fired two missiles over the northern island of Hokkaido in the space of less than a month.
Surveys suggest voters approve of nationalist Abe's firm line on North Korea and the crisis appears to have given him a welcome boost in the polls following a series of scandals, including allegations he improperly favoured a friend in a business deal. Despite a recent run of growth, the election winner will also have to contend with a sluggish economy, as the heavily indebted country grapples with low birthrates and a shrinking labour force.
At a news conference planned for 6:00pm (0900 GMT), Abe is reportedly set to announce that proceeds from a planned sales tax hike in 2019 will be ploughed into education spending rather than paying down the country's enormous debt. Although Abe is expected to triumph in the vote, there are question marks over whether he will retain a two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to reform the constitution to strengthen Japan's military, a stated priority of his.
North Korea fires ballistic missile over Japan
"Despite the seemingly favourable backdrop for Abe, there are risks in calling a snap election," said Yoel Sano, an analyst at BMI research.
At a time of national crisis over North Korea, Japanese voters may see it as a "cynical and opportunistic move" designed to divert attention from a series of scandals that weighed on Abe's popularity, warned Sano.
Commentator Masao Yora said the election will "create a political vacuum" just when the country needs strong leadership in the face of the threat from Pyongyang. This "may seem normal in Japan but from abroad, it is difficult to understand," Yora told AFP.
If re-elected, it would be Abe's fourth term at the helm of the world's third top economy. The third-generation of powerful politicians, Abe appeared to be groomed for power from an early age and he was the country's youngest prime minister when he first won the top job.
He was the first world leader to cultivate close relations with US President Donald Trump, meeting the tycoon in Trump Towers even before he was inaugurated.