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Nov 21, 5:32 AM EST

Japan's lower house dissolved for early election


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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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Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.

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