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Japan Lower House Dissolved for Vote   11/21 06:25

   TOKYO (AP) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the lower house of Japan's 
parliament on Friday, forcing an early election in an apparent bid to shore up 
support for his scandal-plagued government so he can pursue his policy goals.

   His ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for most of the 
post-World War II era, may lose some seats but is likely to retain a solid 
majority with its coalition partner in the 480-seat lower house.

   The election on Dec. 14 follows Abe's decision to postpone a planned sales 
tax increase after data released Monday showed the economy slipped into 
recession. He is portraying the election as a referendum on his economic 
revitalization policies, known as Abenomics, and the postponement of the tax 
hike --- from the current 8 percent to 10 percent --- that had been set for 
next October.

   "The question is whether we should pursue Abenomics or not," Abe told a news 
conference. "That's what this election is about. Through the election I will 
ask the public whether our policies are right or wrong."

   The early poll, however, has puzzled many voters as Abe has been prime 
minister for only about two years and the lower house was only halfway through 
its four-year term. Calling an election right after the release of negative 
economic data is also not usually considered wise. Media polls this week showed 
the majority of voters were opposed to dissolving the lower house.

   But Abe may see it as a chance to win a fresh mandate for his rule and to 
clean house after recent scandals involving Cabinet members dragged down his 
approval ratings, experts said. Two ministers have resigned and others have 
come under attack for alleged campaign finance and election law violations.

   "It was certainly to prolong his life as prime minister," said Mieko 
Nakabayashi, a former lawmaker who teaches at Waseda University in Tokyo.

   With the opposition parties in disarray, Abe can be confident voters will 
give the LDP a victory that will keep him in office for another four years. The 
focus is on the economy, and few voters oppose delaying the tax increase.

   Also, the December vote will come before Abe has to tackle contentious 
issues next year that could erode support for his government, including 
legislation to expand Japan's military role and restart nuclear power plants.

   "It's like pushing a reset button," said Koichi Nakano, an international 
politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. "Once the election is over, 
Abe is likely to claim that he's got a popular mandate and now practically has 
a blank check from the people to continuing to govern for another four years."

   The official campaigning starts Dec. 2.

   "The battle is now starting," Abe told party members on Friday. "We'll make 
an all-out fight in this battle so that we all can come back here to resume our 
responsibility to make Japan a country that shines in the center of the world."

   Abe got a rare second shot as prime minister after stepping down just a year 
into his rocky first term in office in 2006-2007. His support ratings started 
out high as share prices surged in early 2013, but fell recently as parliament 
squabbled over the campaign finance scandals.

   The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which led the country for 
three years until the end of 2012, deeply disappointed voters with its failure 
to achieve promised goals.

   While Abe isn't wildly popular among the general public, voters appear to be 
more willing to trust him and the LDP, which ruled Japan through its 
high-growth era in the 1960s and into the booming 1980s.

   On Monday, Japan said its economy --- the world's third-largest --- 
unexpectedly shrank in the third quarter, its second straight quarterly 
contraction, which is the common definition of a recession. The slowdown has 
been largely blamed on a sales tax hike in April from 5 percent to 8 percent, 
which dragged down business investment and consumer spending.

   Japan has needed to raise taxes to help bring in more revenues to reduce its 
ballooning national debt, the largest among industrialized nations.


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