TOKYO -- Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Wednesday that he was ready to dissolve Parliament in two days, setting the scene for December elections that could end his administration and thrust Japanese politics into more uncertainty.
A nationwide ballot could usher in another prime minister in a country that has seen a rapid succession of them and, with no clear projected winner, deepen Japan's political inertia at a difficult time for the nation.
Tokyo is embroiled in a damaging territorial dispute with China, and Japan's economy, mired in deflation, is edging toward its third recession in just over three years. Reconstruction after the tsunami and nuclear disaster last year is stalling, and the population is declining and public debt is rising.
"Let's do it," Mr. Noda said in a parliamentary debate with opposition leaders, who have been calling for an election for months. His ruling Democratic Party later confirmed that the lower house of Parliament will be dissolved Friday, ahead of elections on Dec. 16.
With his public approval ratings sliding, Mr. Noda is unlikely to score a victory next month. Instead, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, headed by the nationalist former prime minister Shinzo Abe, is leading in opinion polls.
The pressure on Mr. Noda to call elections intensified after he brokered a deal with opposition parties in August for an early vote if they cooperated with a major tax-increase initiative. The move on Wednesday to dissolve Parliament was prompted by more dealings with the opposition, this time for help with a much-needed debt financing bill and changes to Japan's electoral system. Mr. Abe said his party was ready to cooperate in return for elections.
The elections could return the Liberal Democrats to power three years after the Democratic Party defeated them. Before 2009, the Liberal Democrats had held almost uninterrupted power for over a half-century.
Neither side is expected to return a majority to Parliament, so the next government most likely will be built on a shaky coalition or cooperation with splinter parties.
Still, Mr. Abe appeared galvanized by Mr. Noda's offer to dissolve Parliament.
"It's a promise, a promise, right?" he replied. "Let's let the people decide who is better suited to lead the country out of deflation and to strong economic growth."
"We have no intention of ceding power to the spineless Liberal Democratic Party," Mr. Noda shot back.
It was unclear which other players might make inroads in the December elections. Toru Hashimoto, the outspoken and populist mayor of Osaka and head of a new party, the Japan Restoration Association, has pledged to field a candidate in every voting district. Another party was formed just this week by Shintaro Ishihara, a former governor of Tokyo, who told reporters that he vowed to create "a stronger and tougher Japan."
And Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran politician with a track record in both the Democratic and Liberal Democratic Parties, now leads Parliament's third-largest party and commands a loyal following across the board.
Still, with elections looming, these parties may have little time to regroup or field a strong crop of candidates.
Mr. Noda is the third in a succession of weak prime ministers from the Democratic Party, which swept to power on promises to change Japan's postwar order. But much of its agenda was sidetracked by the tsunami and nuclear crisis, and blunders in the disasters' wake have helped erode the party's popular support. Its promise to wrest control of the country from powerful bureaucrats alienated the bureaucracy, which was then happy to see many of the party's policies derail.
More recently, opposition parties blocked a critical deficit financing bill, forcing the government to postpone scheduled spending for the first time in decades. That bill is now set to pass Friday.
The campaign is likely to focus on the planned increase in the consumption tax, negotiations for a contentious trans-Pacific free-trade agreement and the future of Japan's nuclear policy. But policy differences between major parties are murky at best, and often there are splits within parties, which could mean a confusing choice for Japanese voters.
The Liberal Democrats could take a bolder stance in monetary easing to pull Japan out of deflation, however. Mr. Abe has pushed for legislative changes that would give the government greater control over the central bank, including the power to fire the bank's governor if it does not bend to the government's will.
The Liberal Democrats are also likely to push harder to bring Japan's idled nuclear reactors back online, though that could be an unpopular policy amid still-heightened public concerns over their safety.
The nationalist leanings of Mr. Abe and of the splinter parties led by Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Ishihara have raised concerns that Japan's foreign policy could shift more to the right, further damaging the country's relations with its Asian neighbors. Tokyo has already demonstrated a stronger willingness to face off with China over a set of disputed islands in the East China Sea, despite the damage to Japan's exports to a major trading partner.
"To put it bluntly, the current of nationalism in Japan is getting stronger," Soichiro Tahara, a leading journalist and political commentator, wrote in an opinion piece in the Weekly Asahi magazine this week. Too nationalist a tone threatens to isolate Japan, he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.