TOKYO - Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda dissolved the lower house of parliament Friday, paving the way for elections in which his ruling party will likely give way to a weak coalition government divided over how to solve Japan's myriad problems.
Noda followed through on a pledge to call elections after the opposition Liberal Democratic Party agreed to back several key pieces of legislation, including a deficit financing bill and electoral reforms. The Cabinet was expected to quickly announce elections for Dec. 16.
Noda's Democratic Party of Japan has grown unpopular thanks to its handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and especially its recent doubling of the sales tax. The elections will probably end its three-year hold on power.
The LDP, which led Japan for most of the post-World War II era, may win the most seats in the 480-seat lower house, though polls indicate it will fall far short of a majority. That could force it to cobble together a coalition of parties with differing policies and priorities.
A divided government could hinder decision-making as Japan wrestles with a two-decade economic slump, cleanup from last year's nuclear disaster, growing national debt and a rapidly aging population — not to mention a festering territorial dispute with China that is hurting business ties with its biggest trading partner. 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.
"It's unlikely that the election will result in a clear mandate for anybody," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University. "So in that sense, there's still going to be a lot of muddling through."
Still, many see the prospect of change as a positive: Japan's Nikkei 225 stock index jumped 2.2 per cent Friday to close at 9,024.16.
The path to elections was laid suddenly. Noda abruptly said Wednesday in a one-on-one debate with LDP chief Shinzo Abe that he would dissolve parliament if the opposition would agree to key reforms, including shrinking the size of parliament.
Abe, who had a one-year stint as prime minister in 2006 and 2007, now has a chance to return if the LDP wins the most seats. He would become Japan's seventh prime minister in seven years, having suddenly quit as prime minister in 2007, citing health problems he says are no longer an issue.
A staunch nationalist, Abe has taken a strong stance 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.
The Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide victory in 2009 elections amid high hopes for change, ousting the conservative, business-friendly LDP, which had ruled Japan nearly continuously since 1955.
The DPJ's failure to keep campaign promises and the government's handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis triggered by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami have left many disillusioned.
Voters are also unhappy with Noda's centerpiece achievement during nearly 15 months in office: legislation doubling the national 5 per cent sales tax by 2015. He says the increase is necessary to meet growing social security costs as the country greys.
Recent polls show that 25 to 30 per cent of voters back the LDP, while support for the DPJ is in the low teens. About a dozen other parties have scattered support.
"I really don't know who to vote for," said 62-year-old taxi driver Tetsuo Suzuki. "I voted for the DPJ in the last election, but they couldn't seem to get things done. I don't really want to go back to the LDP, either."
Tapping into that voter dismay, outspoken leaders in the two biggest cities in Japan have formed their own national political parties, but they may not have enough time to get organized for the election.
The nationalistic governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, resigned recently to create the Sunrise Party. He helped instigate the territorial crisis with China by saying his government would buy and develop the disputed islands controlled by Japan but long claimed by Beijing. Japan's central government bought the islands to thwart Ishihara's plan, but China was still enraged.
Toru Hashimoto, the brash, young mayor of Osaka, is recruiting candidates for his newly formed Japan Restoration Party, although he says he will not run in the elections. Recent polls show support for his party in the 5 per cent range.
The two men are reportedly in discussions to merge their parties and form a so-called "third force" to counter the LDP and DPJ, but it appears they are having difficulty reconciling some of their differing policy views, including on nuclear power.
Japan is going through a messy period of political transition with its merry-go-round of prime ministers and the emergence of various parties to challenge the long-dominant LDP, experts say.
"The era of one-party dominance is clearly over and behind us," said the professor, Nakano. "We know what we are transiting from, but we don't know where we are going."