Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, pressured by the opposition to honor his promise to go to the people “soon,” dissolved the Lower House on Friday for a general election Dec. 16 that could result in his party being thrown out of power.
The election will come as Japan grapples with a slumping economy, fractious ties with China, new energy goals brought on by the Fukushima nuclear crisis and rebuilding the region devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan will be challenged by the Liberal Democratic Party, which is aiming to regain power after suffering a humiliating loss in the 2009 election.
The DPJ’s support ratings have sunk to roughly half that of the LDP’s in recent opinion polls.
Lower House Speaker Takahiro Yokomichi rose before the chamber and formally declared that “based on Article 7 of the Japanese Constitution, the House of Representatives is resolved,” reading from Emperor Akihito’s dissolution rescript. Many lawmakers gave a traditional “banzai” shout.
“By dissolving the Lower House I wanted to bring an end to the political gridlock in which policy decisions couldn’t be made,” Noda told a news conference. “This election will ask voters whether to move forward or turn the clock back to the old political era before the DPJ took power.”
LDP leader Shinzo Abe, aiming to make a comeback as prime minister, vowed to wage a “historic battle” in the campaign, which officially starts Dec. 4.
Fledgling small parties seek to gain momentum in winning over voters who have been unimpressed by the major parties.
A total of 1,102 candidates, including 169 women, are expected to run, a Kyodo survey found.
Before breaking up, the Diet passed key bills Friday on electoral system reform and government debt issuance, whose deliberation had been stalled before Noda promised Wednesday to dissolve the lower chamber.
The bills, enacted after approval by the Upper House, aim at reforming the voting system for the 480-seat Lower House and allowing the heavily indebted government to issue deficit-covering bonds.
Five single-seat districts will be cut, dropping the number to 295 in order to reduce the vote-value disparity.
The change will not take effect for this election.
The DPJ also wants to slash 40 seats filled through proportional representation blocks, bringing the total to 140, but this isn’t likely to be addressed until next year’s ordinary Diet session. The proposal is opposed by small parties, which rarely can compete successfully in single-seat districts.
The debt-financing law for this fiscal year through March, enacted Friday, will prevent the government from running out of funds.
The Upper House also approved a bill to reduce public pension benefits, enacting a measure to introduce a 2.5 percent reduction in three phases starting next October to redress payment overruns that have been left unattended despite drops in inflation levels.
The upper chamber also enacted a bill providing a monthly payment of up to ¥5,000 per person for low-income pensioners.