Japan sets course for election

Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Picture: AFP
TOKYO - Japan is set to dissolve parliament's lower house on Friday for a 16 December election that is likely to return the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to power with a conservative former prime minister at the helm.

However, few expect the poll, three years after a historic victory swept the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to power for the first time, will fix a policy stalemate that has plagued the economy as it struggles with an ageing population and security challenges due to China's rapid rise.

Political experts worry former Prime Minister and head of the LDP Shinzo Abe, who polls suggest will be the next premier, will further fray ties with China, already chilled by a territorial row over a group of islands.

"They will probably have the same problems of a revolving door at the top and a weak government that finds initiating tough reforms difficult and is tempted to enjoy nationalist grandstanding," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Japan's sixth prime minister in six years and the third since the DPJ's landslide election win, said on Wednesday he would call the election. He had promised three months ago to call an election in exchange for opposition support for his pet policy to double the sales tax by 2015 to curb massive public debt.

His cabinet approved the dissolution on Friday morning, Japanese media said, ahead of the formal announcement by the speaker of the house later in the day.

Among the policies to be debated are how aggressive the central bank should be in trying to beat deflation as the economy slips into its fourth recession since 2000, the role of nuclear power after last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster, and whether Japan should take part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US-led trade pact that Noda favours joining.

Some, however, say the biggest question on voters' minds will be who is best qualified to lead.

"The main issue will be whether we should get rid of the 'incompetent' DPJ and bring experienced people (the LDP) back," said one ruling party lawmaker, speaking privately.

"Or whether because the LDP created the mess, we should have a stronger more intelligent leader, like Hashimoto," the lawmaker added, referring to popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who leads the small Japan Restoration Party.