TOKYO – Japanese parliamentary elections have been tentatively set for Dec. 16, media reports said Thursday after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pledged to dissolve the parliament by Friday if the opposition agreed to key reforms.
Noda's pledge, made during a heated parliamentary exchange with Liberal Democratic Party chief Shinzo Abe on Wednesday, drew protests from some lawmakers within his own party who are not keen to face a vote at a time when the economy is ailing and public approval ratings for Noda's Cabinet have fallen below 20 percent.
At least two members of the Democratic Party of Japan announced they would quit the party following the decision to dissolve the lower house, which would bring on elections.
Japanese media said Thursday that party leaders had tentatively chosen Dec. 16 as the date for the elections. The Cabinet office said the date could not be officially set or confirmed until after Noda dissolves parliament.
Under the Japanese constitution, general elections must be held within 40 days after that point.
The pledge to call elections highlights the gridlock that has paralyzed Japanese politics for years, hindering progress to revitalize an economy on the brink of recession and revamp government finances to cope with a fast-aging population.
An election would also be a distraction at a time of acute antagonisms with China over a territorial dispute that have hurt Japanese exports to one of its biggest markets.
In recent days, Noda has said he would push for Japan to negotiate various free-trade arrangements that many in Japan see as vital for reviving its stagnant economy. However, like other recent leaders, he appears to have run out of time: Japan has seen six prime ministers in the past six years.
"There's a real failure of leadership. That's in part because Japan's expectations for leadership are unrealistic. But also because the quality of leadership in Japan is really low," said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University.
The LDP has been pushing Noda to make good on a promise to call elections soon, but he has said lawmakers must first carry out reforms needed to make the vote constitutional. Those reforms would include shrinking the size of the lower house of parliament.
Noda said the legislature would also have to approve an urgently needed deficit financing bill.
"We have to achieve that (parliamentary shrinkage) as soon as possible. We must make a decision and set a deadline. I can dissolve parliament on Nov. 16. Let's do it," Noda said during a one-on-one debate with Abe in the Diet, or parliament.
Abe said, "It's a promise, a promise, right? So, you're sure. You are sure, right? If you dissolve the parliament on the 16th, we'll let the people decide. We'll let the people decide which of us is better suited to get the country out of deflation and get the economic recovery back on track," Abe retorted.
"I look forward to meeting you at the election battle," he added.
Speaking after the session, Abe said his party had agreed to the promises he made. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura likewise confirmed that Noda's comments were a pledge to dissolve parliament.
The LDP has been leading in public opinion polls and is eager to hold elections and challenge the hold on power by Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan. But the polls also show about half of the public are undecided or supporting other parties.
The two sides agreed earlier in the week on pushing ahead with the legislation authorizing the issuance of deficit bonds worth 38 trillion yen ($475 billion) to help cover the national budget. The government otherwise would have run short of funding by the end of the month.
The financing bill is expected to pass the lower house of parliament on Thursday and gain approval by the upper house next week, along with a decision on eliminating five single-seat constituencies in the lower house.
Other electoral reforms, on reducing a larger number of lower house seats, would wait until the next session of parliament.
"People are disaffected with the two largest parties," said Sophia's Nakano. "The LDP is not responding to the popular mood; the DPJ let people down. There are a number of voters who really don't have much preference on where to go."
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi and Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.