Japan Likely to Embrace Free Trade Pact

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Published: November 9, 2012

TOKYO — In a possible gambit to reverse his governing party’s flagging fortunes, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appears likely to declare Japan’s intent to join an ambitious pan-Pacific free trade agreement, then call a snap election in which the party would campaign on that move.Major newspapers said on Saturday that support was building in the Noda administration to announce Japan’s entry into the proposed American-led regional agreement sometime in the next two months. The reports said that move would be immediately followed by a decision to dissolve Parliament for national elections that would take place a month later.

Japan has long wavered on entry into the pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is opposed by the nation’s heavily protected farmers but supported by consumers and industry groups. Because the reports about the government’s intentions appeared in most major newspapers, it suggested Mr. Noda’s Democratic Party had made a concerted effort to begin signaling a change in strategy.

The state minister for national policy, Seiji Maehara, has also said joining the agreement would become “a public promise by the Democratic Party that should be a main issue in elections.”

Signing onto the pact is likely to please the United States, which has urged Japan for the last two years to join the group as a way to push the global economy out of its prolonged slump. News reports suggested that the move would also be a way for the government to lash itself even closer to the United States at a time when Japan is increasingly jittery about China’s ambitions in the region. The reports described the likely decision to join the pact as a domestic political gamble by the prime minister to prevent his party from a humiliating loss in elections, which must be held before September.

The Democrats have been searching for a way to regain public support after widespread criticism that they mishandled Japan’s response to the Fukushima nuclear accident. Mr. Noda’s approval ratings have dropped into the teens in recent polls.

When pressed by the opposition on his earlier promises to hold elections “soon,” Mr. Noda has said only that he and other party leaders would decide the timing when they were ready.

If he takes a clear stand on the trade pact, Mr. Noda may be aiming to regain support among the Democrats’ base of urban white-collar voters and union members. They are expected to welcome the lower prices and increased exports that more open markets are likely to bring.

But such a move would also alienate farmers, one of Japan’s most powerful bloc of voters. On Friday, about a half-dozen Democrats said they might defect from the party if Mr. Noda were to back the trade deal.

Joining the pact would also put the largest opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, who currently lead in polls, in an uncomfortable political position. The Liberal Democrats have avoided taking a clear stand on the agreement because they have tried to keep the support of farmers and big business, traditionally the party’s two biggest supporters. Mr. Noda may be hoping to hurt the opposition by forcing it to pick one side, news reports said.

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