SEOUL — Japan's prime minister Friday dissolved the Lower House of the Diet (Parliament), compelling a national election. This comes as Japan teeters on a return to recession and amid increased tensions between Japan and its neighbors.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has set parliamentary elections for December 16 - a move that comes despite the objection of many members of his own party. They fear what opinion polls overwhelmingly predict: the Democratic Party of Japan in power for the last three years is now in disarray and likely will lose the election.
An opinion poll taken Wednesday, before Noda announced he would dissolve the Lower House, showed his approval rating down to nearly 17 percent, a drop of six percent from the previous month. He is Japan's sixth prime minister in as many years.
Noda only agreed to call an election after he obtained the opposition's consent to approve in the Upper House, which it controls, a bill that allows the government to issue bonds to cover its debts for the fiscal year.
Besides economic and diplomatic woes, Japan is also beset with an uncertain energy policy and lingering effects of the March 11, 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami on its northeastern coast. That disaster killed about 20,000 people and caused three nuclear reactors to melt down.
The election is expected to return the conservatives to rule, a position they held for most of the period after the Second World War ended.
The prime minister, speaking to reporters warned that if the Liberal Democratic Party gets back into power relations could worsen with Japan's neighbors.
Noda says foreign and security policies based on extreme nationalism are dangerous. Japan, he says, needs to assert its positions on its national interests but remain calm and take a wide perspective.
Most political observers predict the hawkish former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, should be able to cobble together a weak coalition led by his LDP, with the support of new fringe parties, to return to his old job.
Speaking to his party's executives Friday morning Abe says their mission, on behalf of the public, is to wage a "historic battle" and capture victory.
Abe resigned five years ago, citing health problems following his party's heavy loss in elections for the less powerful Upper House.
Japan's currency fell to a six-month low after Abe the previous day made an unusually bold statement seen as pressuring the country's central bank to weaken the yen.
In a speech, the opposition leader said Japan's economic problems stem from prolonged deflation and a strong yen. He called for the unlimited printing of currency to achieve three percent inflation - triple the current target.
Japan's neighbors do not take delight in the probable return of Abe.
Tokyo is involved in territorial disputes with both China and South Korea.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Thursday, asked to comment on the impending return to power of Abe, noted relations between Beijing and Tokyo are "grim" and implored Japan to "make concrete efforts towards improving bilateral relations."
China unveiled its new leadership lineup on Thursday. Japan's government reacted with a call for "mutually beneficial" relations with the new Chinese leaders.
The Japanese finance minister is set to visit Seoul a week from Saturday. That will mark the first full official meeting between Japanese and South Korean officials since their disagreement over a Korean-held island (Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese) flared in the summer.
The direction of their relationship also hinges on who South Korea elects as its next president. The country will hold its election on December 19, just three days after Japanese voters go to the polls.