[TOKYO] The lower chamber of Japan's parliament was dissolved Friday in readiness for a general election, expected next month, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to consolidate his grip on power and reinvigorate his economic drive.
"In accordance with article seven of Japan's constitution, the lower house is dissolved," speaker Bunmei Ibuki told the chamber.
Mr Ibuki's move came after a mandate from Abe, who is going to the polls less than half way through a four-year term.
Mr Abe said earlier this week that he wanted to ask for voters' endorsement for his decision to postpone a sales tax rise after data showed an earlier hike had knocked the economy off its axis.
His cabinet is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Friday afternoon to confirm the election will be Sunday, December 14.
"I'm fully aware that it's going to be a tough election," Mr Abe told a meeting of businessmen Thursday afternoon in Tokyo.
"Through the election campaign, I want to clarify if the growth strategy we are pushing is right or wrong," he said.
The last 24 months have seen two of the so-called "three arrows" of "Abenomics" fired - massive fiscal stimulus and a flood of easy money. A third "arrow" of structural reforms remains stuck in the quiver, a victim of the vested interests it is intended to undermine.
"The third arrow has never flown at all, facing resistance" from his own conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Kenji Eda, co-leader of the opposition Japan Restoration Party, said Thursday.
Banri Kaieda, head of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, also said: "We can't have the (rich-poor) gap widen. We can't give him a blank cheque for another four years." According to opinion polls conducted by the Asahi Shimbun Wednesday and Thursday, the Abe cabinet's approval rate fell to 39 per cent from 42 per cent earlier this month.
His disapproval rate rose to 40 per cent from 36 per cent, making it higher than his approval rate for the first time since he took office in December 2012, the survey showed.
Mr Abe has tried to cast the election as a referendum on his decision to delay the sales tax hike to 10 per cent, after the first jump to 8.0 percent sent consumers scurrying for cover and took a huge bite out of GDP.
But the Asahi survey said 65 per cent of voters were not convinced by his reasoning.
Most commentators agree that the election is a fig leaf to cover Mr Abe's attempt to consolidate his own position within his fractious LDP, and to fend off challengers in a party leadership election scheduled for September next year.
However, he also runs the risk of undermining his authority if his coalition's majority is reduced too much.