THE prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, appears suddenly to have settled a question that has hung over Japanese politics since the summer. He all but promised to dissolve parliament within two days—to hold a general election by December 16th.
The move was greeted with glee by Shinzo Abe, who believes he can lead the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) back to the position of power it occupied for almost 55 years until 2009. It raises another big question for Mr Noda, though. Why is he willing to hold an election, so soon, that polls suggest he is bound to lose?
The answer to that question would seem to reveal a lot about the prime minister, a man who seems prepared to take his party down in flames to do what he considers the decent thing. Many within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have urged him to cling to power for as long as possible, hoping that Mr Abe, who fluffed the job of prime minister from 2006-07, will stumble again in the meantime.
But Mr Noda overrode their objections and set only two conditions for dissolving parliament. First, he wants the LDP-led opposition block to join the DPJ in voting in the Diet, or parliament, to issue bonds that would cover this year’s budget. They have already agreed to that.
Secondly, he wants a commitment in the next parliament to reduce the number of MPs. Japan needs to redraw the electoral map after the election, in order to avoid a constitutional crisis related to voting disparities between heavily populated and depopulated areas. Mr Abe did not agree to that, but it seems a small price to pay for something the LDP craves: the return to power.
Standing opposite Mr Abe in a face-to-face debate in the Diet, Mr Noda sought to justify the election timing by declaring that he was honest: he had made a promise in August to the LDP to dissolve parliament “soon”, and intended to stick to it. Those who know him say he is also driven by a desire to make tough decisions about Japan’s future, however unpopular they might appear to members of his party.
Earlier this year, he persuaded the DPJ and the LDP to join forces to raise the consumption tax (a tax on sales), starting in 2014, even though this contradicted his party’s 2009 election manifesto. The budget-financing bill will apply until 2015, such that future governments will not be hijacked by the issue as the DPJ was.
Some of these decisions confound those in Mr Noda’s own party, who have seen his government’s support rate plunge to 18%, according to the latest poll. They also fear holding an election during what may be the start of Japan’s third economic recession in five years. On November 12th it was reported that third-quarter GDP declined 0.9%; fourth-quarter data augur ill, too.
If that weren’t bad enough, many also fear that Mr Noda will campaign to take Japan into negotiations on a free-trade deal with America and ten other countries, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Though on November 13th a poll in the Asahi Shimbun, a newspaper, said 48% of those surveyed approved of the TPP, it is a highly controversial issue whose opponents shout much louder than its supporters. Mr Abe, whose party panders to Japan’s powerful farm lobby, opposes it. “A party leader is just not supposed to push through unpopular policies before an election. It’s electoral suicide,” says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at SophiaUniversity in Tokyo.
Mr Noda may not be all lofty ideals and political naivety, though. A swift election would make it hard for Japan’s array of smaller “third” parties to band together and pose a serious challenge. It would give Mr Abe more time to make mistakes before an upper-house election in June. Some speculate that Mr Noda may have a plan up his sleeve to divide both the DPJ and LDP after the election and forge a pro-TPP coalition.
But in the meantime, Mr Noda appears to be on the verge of handing back power on a plate to an LDP that has barely reformed since it was driven out in disgrace three years ago. That, for all his good intentions, would be a legacy of failure.