Oh snap! Why Abe called an election he doesn’t need

Why Japan's inflation goal is now within reach
Why Japan's inflation goal is now within reach   

Japanese voters are headed to the polls, but many remain confused by why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a snap election despite little opposition to his plan to delay a sales-tax hike.

Essentially, Abe is buying time for his policies, dubbed Abenomics, to kickstart Japan's long-moribund economy, Takuji Okubo, chief economist at Japan Macro Advisors, told CNBC.

"I may sound simplistic, but that is actually the case, "Okubo said.

Watch: Japan PM calls snap polls

"Domestically, by delaying the consumption tax rate hike, there is no immediate risk," Okubo said, but he noted "the top priority and pretty much the goal of Abenomics is to get the inflation up, defeat deflation, [and] get the growth up."

That means boosting wages, which have stalled despite record corporate profits, although data for September showed average monthly salaries increased by 0.5 percent on-year, the biggest rise in more than six years.

Customers walk outside Tsukiji Market in Tokyo
Tomohiro Ohsumi | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Customers walk outside Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

"The unemployment rate is as low as 3.6 percent right now and with two more years of just 1 percent growth, the unemployment rate will fall to 3 percent and that will be very hot stage," Okubo said. "With that kind of tightening in the labor market, there will be a natural pressure for wages to rise."

Read More Japan PM calls snap election, delays sales tax hike

Abe called a snap election on Tuesday, and announced a delay in the second sales tax hike by 18 months after data this week showed the country fell into recession, with its economy shrinking by an annualized 1.6 percent in the third quarter, following the second-quarter's 7.3 percent contraction.

The lower house of parliament would be dissolved on Nov. 21, with the vote likely coming in mid-December.

The long game

While buying time for Abenomics to work may be one goal, Abe may also be playing a longer game when it comes to remaining prime minister in a country where the role's job tenure can sometimes be compared with the high turnover of being the drummer of Spinal Tap.

Read More Japan snap election: a sign Abenomics is crumbling?

"He's justifying this decision to postpone the hike and call an election, giving a reason that this is a major change in long standing policy," Scott Seaman, senior analyst for Asia at Eurasia, told CNBC. "To really get a fresh mandate for that choice, he needs to go to the people again."

What a fresh mandate means for Japan's Abe
What a fresh mandate means for Japan's Abe   

But Abe also has his eye on next year's leadership vote for his political party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which currently holds over 60 percent of the lower house of parliament, Seaman said.

Read More Abenomics' direction uncertain after GDP shock

"There's a lot of time between the election in December and the presidential election for the LDP next fall," Seaman said. "Over time, any prime minister in Japan usually sees his popularity decline. We have no guarantee at this point that the economy will actually respond as well as people hope to not having this tax hike in the pipeline anymore."

Seaman also noted Abe may be looking toward other policy priorities that are less popular, such as on "collective self-defense," which would increase Japan's military options.

Earlier this year, Japan ended the ban on collective self-defense that has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945, marking a sea change for a country that adopted a pacifist constitution after the end of World War II. The government also plans to relax limits on activities in U.N. led peace-keeping operations, short of engagement in full-scale war.

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"If he comes out of this election, as we expect him to do, with a fresh mandate, in full control of the party, as long as the economy improves next year, I think he'll have much more political room to push forward as well on his security program," Seaman said. "He's going to try to argue that he's doing the right thing for the economy, but he's going to keep pushing on his defense and security policies."

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1