Described as "gutsy" by the media for setting December 16 as the date of the general election, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has caught opposition parties off-guard.
Before the television cameras in the Diet on Wednesday, the head of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was visibly taken aback by his opponent's announcement. In a direct appeal to Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda offered to dissolve the Lower House for a general election if Abe's party would agree to pass a bill on electoral reform in the next session of the parliament.
After consulting with senior members of his party, Abe eventually agreed.
As victories go, publicly catching his biggest political threat off-guard was a minor one for the prime minister, but giving the public a chance to pass comment on his administration sooner rather than later was a bold and potentially decisive pre-emptive strike.
After all, with his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) languishing in the opinion polls, the wise course of action for Mr. Noda might have been to wait until the last minute before calling an election.
He could have waited until the middle of 2013 before setting a date, but he apparently realized that would have given what is emerging as a "third force" of minor parties an opportunity to coalesce into a meaningful political movement.
Now, they have just one month to determine alliances, policies and strategies.
"The government is still facing a difficult task but I think that Mr. Noda will do better now that he has called the election on his own terms rather than being forced into it," said Jun Okumura, a senior advisor and political analyst with the Eurasia Group.
Support of minority parties
Yet the belief is that neither the DPJ nor the LDP will be strong enough to win a simple majority on December 16 and that they will be required to call on newly emerging parties for sufficient support to form a government.
That scenario does not bode well for the general lack of direction that has afflicted Japanese politics for the last decade and seen no fewer than six prime ministers come and go since 2007. If Mr. Noda does lose the election, he will continue Japan's unenviable statistic of national leaders surviving in the post for about one year.
After the 2009 general election, the DPJ took 308 of the 480 seats in the chamber, replacing the DPJ - which held on to 119 seats - as the dominant force for the first time since the 1950s.
The support rate for the government has sunk to a record low of 17.3 percent in the most recent public opinion poll, down 6.1 percentage points from October. The support rate for the LDP also fell, although it was only down a marginal 0.2 points to 16.6 percent. By far the largest proportion of potential voters - 65 percent - said they did not support any particular party.
It is these voters who will decide the outcome of the election and will be courted by the different parties in the run-up to polling day.
Smaller parties in the mix
Japan's political waters have been muddied by smaller parties. The Japan Restoration Party has emerged in Osaka with a broad call for reducing the influence of the national government in local issues but a more nationalistic approach to relations with neighboring countries.
Shintaro Ishihara, the outspokenly right-wing former mayor of Tokyo, this week set up his own political grouping, the Sunrise Party, and called on others aspiring to have a genuine say in how the country is run to join him.
Others in the mix include New Komeito, a conservative party backed by the Soka Gakkai religious group, the centrist Your Party, the Japanese Communist Party, the left-wing Social Democratic Party, the Kizuna Party, the People's New Party, New Party Daichi and even the one-man political force known as New Party Nippon.
Voters' key concerns
For the average Japanese, the critical issues are the planned increase in the consumption tax, in part designed to help pay for the reconstruction of areas devastated by last year's Great East Japan Earthquake. Another worry connected to the worst natural disaster to strike this country in living memory is nuclear power and the question of whether the nation's reactors should go back into operation.
Sectors of the population, notably the farming industry, are strongly opposed to Japan joining the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, while there is a more widespread and elevated concern at the apparent belligerence of China over territorial concerns.
"With so little time for them to prepare, I think it will be very difficult for the small parties to coordinate their candidates for seats and avoid splitting the vote," said Okumura. "I expect the LDP will emerge with electoral plurality, but I don't expect either of the two main parties to get a straight majority."
So unless these two traditional enemies can find sufficient common ground to form a "grand coalition," then the balance of power is likely to be in the hands of a new party with radically different ideas on how the nation should be run.
And neither the DPJ nor the LDP really want that outcome.