By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Momentum appears to be building for Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to call an early general election, as speculation swirled he would postpone an unpopular sales tax hike and officials of the ruling coalition urged preparations for a poll.
Media reports on Tuesday said Abe might call a snap election before the end of the year if he decides to delay a planned hike in the sales tax to 10 percent from next October. No election for parliament's lower house need be held until 2016.
"It is for certain that the winds have begun to blow for the dissolution of the lower house," Toshihiro Nikai, a top official of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters, adding that the party must be ready to fight and win an election.
Abe's junior coalition partner echoed the sentiment.
"We need to consider a posture to cope with that," Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of junior coalition party the Komeito, told a news conference, pointing to reports building up in the media.
The Yomiuri newspaper reported on Tuesday that Abe might dissolve the lower house as early as next week and call an election for next month, possibly on Dec. 14.
A government source told Reuters a snap election within the year was one option being considered, while an opposition party source put the probability of an early vote at 90 percent.
"If Abe doesn't call an election now, he will lose credibility," the opposition source said.
Abe surged to power in December 2012, promising to revive the economy with his triple "Abenomics" recipe of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and structural reform.
But a sales tax hike to 8 percent from April, part of a two-stage plan to rein in huge public debt, sent the economy into a slump and recovery has been less robust than officials hoped.
Abe's ratings took a hit from a series of money scandals in his cabinet, and some political insiders said he might want to call the snap election before they slide further.
"Everyone thought the election would be next autumn but before that, Abe must tackle several unpopular policies," the LDP lawmaker added, citing plans to restart nuclear reactors taken off line after the 2011 Fukushima disaster and measures to ease curbs on Japan's military.
"If he waits and dawdles, he might have to call the election when his support rates are even lower." [ID:nL3N0T139S]
A survey by NHK public TV released on Monday showed support for Abe slid 8 percentage points to 44 percent, the lowest since he returned to power for a rare second term.
(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Yuko Yoshikawa; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)