JAPANESE prime minister Yoshihiko Noda dissolved the lower house of parliament yesterday, paving the way for elections in which his party is likely to give way to a weak coalition government divided over how to solve the country’s problems.
If Mr Noda’s centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) loses the 16 December poll, the economically struggling country will get its seventh prime minister in seven years.
“Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” shouted the 480 lawmakers in the lower house, raising their arms in celebration, after the speaker read a proclamation approved by Emperor Akihito, which was delivered wrapped in a cloth of imperial violet.
The opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which led Japan for most of the post-Second World War era, is in the best position to take over. The timing of the election probably pre-empts moves by more conservative challengers, including former Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara, to build up support.
Although campaigning will not officially begin until 4 December, the first shots were fired yesterday by party leaders.
“What’s at stake in the upcoming elections is whether Japan’s future is going to move forward or backward,” Mr Noda told fellow DPJ leaders. “It is going to be a crucial election to determine the fate of Japan.”
The DPJ, in power for three years, has grown unpopular thanks largely to its handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and especially its recent doubling of the sales tax.
Mr Noda’s most likely successor is LDP head and former prime minister Shinzo Abe. He resigned in 2007 after a year in office, citing health problems he says are no longer an issue. Yesterday Mr Abe said: “I will do my utmost to end the political chaos and stalled economy. I will take the lead to make that happen.”
The path to elections was laid suddenly on Wednesday during a debate between Mr Abe and Mr Noda, during which Mr Noda abruptly said he would dissolve parliament if the opposition would agree to key reforms, including a deficit financing bill and electoral reforms.
Polls indicate that the conservative, business-friendly LDP will win the most seats in the lower house but will fall well short of a majority. That would force it to create a coalition of parties with differing policies and priorities.
“It’s unlikely that the election will result in a clear mandate for anybody,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “So in that sense, there’s still going to be a lot of muddling through.”
The election, and the divided government that will follow, complicate efforts to extricate Japan from its two-decade economic slump and effectively handle the clean-up from the 2011 nuclear disaster.
Japan’s leaders urgently need to devise strategies for coping with a soaring national debt – now more than double the national GDP – and a rapidly aging population. Japan must also decide whether it will follow through with plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040, a move that many in the LDP oppose.
Perhaps most pressing is its festering territorial dispute with China, which has hit exports to its biggest trading partner.
A staunch nationalist, Mr Abe has railed against China in the dispute over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Recent polls show support for the DPJ in the low teens, while 25 to 30 per cent of voters back the LDP. Several other parties have some support – but nearly half the electorate is undecided.