Under growing opposition pressure to keep a promise to
call an election "soon", Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda
looks to be leaning toward calling a vote as early as next
month, after pledging backing for a controversial U.S.-led free
The unpopular Noda may be hoping to emulate charismatic
leader Junichiro Koizumi's bold election gamble in 2005 and
use a call for a major economic reform to ease the bashing
his Democratic Party is expected to suffer at the hands of
The maverick Koizumi's pledge to privatise the giant postal
system as a symbol of vital reforms, despite opposition from
lawmakers in his own party, helped him lead the then-ruling
Liberal Democrats to a stunning election victory.
Now Noda, with voter support for his cabinet below 20
percent, wants to enshrine backing for the U.S.-led
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact in his Democratic
Party of Japan's (DPJ) new campaign platform.
"We will simultaneously pursue the TPP and the free trade
agreement between Japan, China and South Korea and this
stance will be included in our manifesto," Noda told
reporters over the weekend.
But Noda faces opposition from his ruling party MPs who fear
a backlash from Japan's politically powerful farmers. Japan's
farmers say a flood of cheap agricultural imports will
devastate their heavily protected, small-scale operations.
The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) opposes
joining the TPP negotiations if the end result is the
elimination of all tariffs. The TPP aims to tear down
traditional barriers to trade.
"I think an election is close," Motohisa Furukawa, a former
National Strategy Minister, told Reuters last week, adding
that a December 16 vote was possible. "I don't think the
situation will improve if we put it off."
DEFEAT LOOMS FOR NODA
Political analysts are not convinced Noda can steal victory
at the ballot box like Koizumi, but how badly the Democrats
will lose is unclear given lukewarm voter support for the LDP
and the wild card of new parties such as one led by populist
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.
"It wasn't that the public liked postal reform. The public
liked Koizumi," said Gerry Curtis, a Columbia University
political science professor.
"The problem is, the public doesn't particularly like Noda. I
think what he may be after is to go down in history as the
one who got the consumption tax increase and TPP."
In August, Noda persuaded the LDP and its smaller partner,
the New Komeito, to back a bill to double the sales tax to 10
percent by 2015 in order to curb bulging public debt.
In return for their help in passing the bill in the
opposition-controlled upper house, he promised to call a
general election "soon".
Japanese business executives are pushing strongly for Tokyo
to join the U.S.-led trade deal, arguing Japan will fall
further behind regional rivals China and South Korea if it
stays out of the pact, which so far includes the United
States Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore,
Brunei, Chile and Peru.
Noda is Japan's sixth prime minister since 2006, when Koizumi
ended a rare five-year term, and the third since the
Democrats won a landslide victory in 2009, ending more than
half a century of nearly non-stop LDP rule.
Since gaining office three years ago, the Democrats have
fallen into policy confusion and political deadlock.
Pressure is mounting on Noda to call an election for
parliament's lower house before year-end, although some in
his party would prefer to delay the day of reckoning.
Lower house members' four-year terms run through August 2013
but scenting victory, the LDP and the New Komeito want Noda
to keep his pledge to call a poll now.
Hoping to force his hand, they are poised to help pass key
bills Noda has set as conditions for calling an election.
A law to allow the government to issue bonds to help finance
the budget now looks set to pass, as does legislation to
reduce vote disparities between urban and rural election
districts that the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.
But Noda could still decide to wait until next year to face
Japanese voters, perhaps dissolving the lower chamber soon
after the start of a regular session expected to begin in
"Noda's job is to minimise the damage to the party," said
Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation
think-tank. "If he wants to avoid a total bashing, the
election should not be this year."