Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the House of Representatives on Friday and set Nov. 9 as the date of a general election.

The official election campaign starts Oct. 28.

At stake in the election are 480 seats in the Lower House and the fate of the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition, with the Democratic Party of Japan, the No. 1 opposition force, hoping to unseat the Koizumi administration.

While Koizumi is entering the race with solid public support, experts agree that his LDP-led coalition could face an uphill battle because the DPJ has gained momentum since its recent absorption of the Liberal Party.

The DPJ is trying to win over voters with its pledge to transform the nation’s political landscape into one based on power rotation between two major parties: the LDP and the DPJ.

“With this dissolution, we believe a new door has been opened to create a new administration,” DPJ President Naoto Kan told a party meeting Friday at the Diet.

The general election of the Lower House, which elects the prime minister, is the first since Koizumi took office in April 2001. If the LDP-led coalition emerges victorious in the election, Koizumi, elected as LDP chief last month for a fresh three-year term, could stay in power through 2006.

The LDP has been in power almost continuously since its creation in 1955. It lost its grip on power for just eight months between 1993 and 1994.

The current balance of power in the Diet shows the DPJ has its work cut out trying to oust the LDP from power.

At the time of the dissolution, the LDP had 246 seats, New Komeito 31 and the New Conservative Party 9.

Of the opposition, the DPJ had 137 seats, the Japanese Communist Party 20 and the Social Democratic Party 18.

Shortly before House of Representatives Speaker Tamisuke Watanuki declared the dissolution of the chamber, leaders of the three ruling parties — the LDP, New Komeito and NCP — met to confirm that they would maintain the triumvirate coalition even after the election.

“Whatever the results of the election, we’d like to maintain the framework of the three-party administration management,” New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki quoted Koizumi as saying after emerging from the meeting with the prime minister.

The LDP currently holds a slim majority in the Lower House, but it needs to rely on its allies to maintain control of the Upper House.

Policy issues in the election include measures to cure the ailing economy, reforms of the public pension system, which is on the brink of collapse, and the extent of Japan’s support of the U.S.-led postwar reconstruction of Iraq, including the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces troops.

The privatization of postal services and four debt-ridden expressway public corporations are also among the issues. Koizumi wants to privatize them but has met with persistent resistance from within his own LDP, many of whose members have vested interests in the entities. He has so far failed to propose any specific reform schemes.

Koizumi apparently dissolved the chamber at this time to stamp out rebellion by LDP members, many of whom oppose Koizumi’s austere reforms despite re-electing him as party chief.

Article 7 of the Constitution is interpreted as giving the prime minister the power to dissolve the Lower House at any time.

Koizumi had long indicated he would dissolve the chamber shortly after the LDP presidential poll on Sept. 20. The prospect has discouraged many LDP members from rebelling against him, particularly as he still maintains strong popularity in media opinion polls.

The power to dissolve the Lower House gives the prime minister great political influence over other lawmakers. Knowing when to start preparing for election campaigns, including preparing budgets for the use of political funds, is a critical factor in lawmakers’ survival.

“The time is ripe,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Friday. “Three years have passed (since the previous election), I think both ruling and opposition lawmakers are ready for an election at any time.”

The last general election of the Lower House was held in June 2000, under Koizumi’s predecessor, Yoshiro Mori.

To survive and remain in power, the LDP must take advantage of the popularity of Koizumi and LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe, promoted last month to the party’s No. 2 spot.

Koizumi, who once boasted stunning approval rates of 80 percent or higher, is still popular with voters, with support rates currently around 60 percent. Abe is popular with voters due to his hardline stance on the issue of Japanese abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Earlier the day, the House of Councilors enacted a bill to extend by two years a law that allows the SDF to continue providing logistic support to the U.S.-led forces combating terrorism. The DPJ, JCP and SDP voted against it.

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