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DPJ is running scared as election draws near

Kyodo

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s readiness to hold a general election next month has sent shock waves through his Democratic Party of Japan, whose ranks worry the campaign will spell their doom.

DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi has led the resistance to an early dissolution of the Lower House, which people close to Noda say could take place next week, paving the way for an election on either Dec. 16 or 22.

Koshiishi, who should be Noda’s right-hand man, has appeared unfazed by the recent flurry of speculation that Noda may hold the election soon despite the DPJ’s slim chance for victory. The party, suffering badly in public opinion polls, holds a tenuous majority in the Lower House.

The DPJ’s support rate fell to near 10 percent in a recent Kyodo News poll, lagging far behind the 30 percent showing support for the Liberal Democratic Party.

The idea of a Lower House dissolution before the end of the year surfaced within the DPJ last week, but Koshiishi told aides that this would be “impossible,” according to sources close to him.

Noda promised the major opposition LDP and New Komeito in August that he would turn to voters “sometime soon” in exchange for their support in passing the consumption tax hike. The two parties cooperated and the bill was passed that month.

The prime minister told the Lower House Budget Committee on Monday that there is no change in his intention of “going to the people when conditions are right.”

“He is eager to keep his promise,” an aide said. But the promise is not the only reason Noda is ready to risk an early election.

One benefit would be going to the polls before emerging political forces such as Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s new party can field competitive candidates.

Meanwhile the “right conditions” Noda mentioned are beginning to move into place.

One concerns passage of the debt-financing bill for the current fiscal year through March. The bill is poised to clear the Lower House on Thursday now that the LDP has reversed its opposition to debating it.

The LDP has also shown willingness to agree to another of Noda’s conditions, setting up a national conference on social security reform under legislation enacted in August.

The third of his three conditions is reform of the Lower House electoral system to address the vast vote-value disparity, which the Supreme Court has effectively deemed unconstitutional.

A senior DPJ official said it might be difficult for Noda to dissolve the Lower House while leaving the vote disparity issue unresolved.

As part of electoral system reform, the DPJ envisages cutting the number of Lower House seats elected from single-seat districts by five, bringing the total to 295, and taking away 40 proportional representation seats, leaving the total at 140.

Koshiishi has said the measures should be enacted together and shows no signs of budging. But the LDP has said a cut in the number of single-seat districts should come first.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now head of the LDP, said in a speech Monday that a new budget for revamping the economy can only be crafted by a new government that has gained public support via an election.

The LDP is demanding that an election be held by Dec. 16 to leave room for a yearend budget compilation, which means the Lower House would have to be dissolved by Nov. 22 at the latest.

According to sources close to Abe, however, he is now apparently inclined to agree to holding the election Dec. 24.

If the ruling bloc-opposition negotiations on the issue drag on, Noda may be able to dissolve the Lower House by the end of December and hold the election early next year. In that case, the election date could be Jan. 20, according to some lawmakers.

Another factor that could lessen the chances of an election before the end of next month is Japan’s participation in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks.

Noda has pledged to include the TPP issue in the DPJ’s platform for the next general election, but this is drawing opposition within the ruling party.

Noda could miss the chance of a Lower House dissolution within this year and be forced to wait to do it in January and hold the election in February, lawmakers and pundits said.

If that is not possible, a Lower House dissolution would be difficult until the enactment of the budget, possibly at the end of March.