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 trade pact.
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 disappointed voters.
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 Dec. 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