Reeling from the revelation this week that Japan has slipped into recession, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has dissolved the lower house of parliament and forced a snap election.
Abe has claimed the election, which is expected to be held on December 14, will be a referendum on his economic revitalisation policies — known as Abenomics — and the postponement of a tax hike that was planned for next October.
It is likely that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for most of the post-World War II era, will retain a solid majority with its coalition partner in the 480-seat lower house — though it may lose some seats.
On Monday, Japan said its economy — the world's third-largest — unexpectedly shrank for the second straight quarter, a development largely blamed on a hike in the sales tax in April.
"The battle is now starting," Abe told his party shortly after the dissolution.
"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." The snap election provides Abe an opportunity to get rid of unpopular Cabinet members and refresh his public mandate, two years into an administration that has come under attack for alleged campaign finance and election law violations.
"It was certainly to prolong his life as prime minister," former lawmaker Mieko Nakabayashi told Associated Press.
Japanese bullet trains: in pictures
Japanese bullet trains: in pictures
1/7 Bullet trains (1974)
Japanese bullet trains lying idle at Shinagawa Railway Station during a 24 hour transport strike.
2/7 Hayabusa bullet train (2011)
Japan's 'Hayabusa' bullet train passes through a station in Tokyo in 2011.
3/7 Bullet train and Mt Fuji (2001)
A 500-type bullet train passes in front of Mt. Fuji in Shizuoka in 2001.
4/7 JR East's 'Fastech 360S' (2005)
5/7 Bullet train and snow (2014)
A bullet train arrives at JR Tokyo Station amid snow in February 2014.
6/7 N700 bullet train (2007)
7/7 Derailed bullet train (2013)
The Akita Shinkansen train derailed in March 2013 amid heavy snow fall. No-one was injured.
With the opposition parties in disarray, Abe can be fairly confident voters will give the LDP a victory that will keep him in office. The public's focus is on the economy and few voters would oppose delaying a tax increase.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which led the country for three years until September 2012, deeply disappointed voters with their failure to achieve promised goals and perceived lack of leadership.
While Abe isn't wildly popular among public, voters appear to be more willing to trust him and the LDP, which led Japan for decades, including through its high-growth era in the 1960s and into the booming 1980s.
In the first half of next year, Abe plans to tackle contentious issues that could erode support for his government, namely 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.
Abe got a rare second term 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 they have fallen recently as parliament got bogged down in squabbles over campaign finance scandals that forced out two of his Cabinet ministers within weeks of an early September reshuffle.
Additional reporting by Associated PressReuse content