AFP - Japan's election campaign kicked off Tuesday, less than two weeks before polls in which the centre-left opposition party is widely tipped to take power for the first time.
The conservative government of embattled Prime Minister Taro Aso has lagged in opinion surveys for months, although it was helped by new data this week that showed Japan has emerged from its deepest post-war recession.
Aso and his rival, opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama, have been in election mode since the premier dissolved parliament last month, but Tuesday marked the official start of campaigning for the August 30 lower house vote.
More than 1,300 candidates were expected to file their candidacies for the 480-seat lower chamber of the Diet legislature.
The premier's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power almost without break for more than half a century and, together with a smaller party, held a commanding majority before parliament was dissolved.
However, opinion polls suggest voters have become disenchanted both with the LDP, due to unemployment rising to 5.4 percent, and with Aso, whose leadership has been marred by verbal gaffes and policy turnarounds.
Surveys have for months given a 10 to 20 percentage point lead to the untested Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a broadly centre-left and pacifist group that also includes LDP defectors and defence hawks among its mixed ranks.
A poll by the Asahi daily Tuesday said 32 percent of voters backed the DPJ, against 20 percent support for the LDP. A Tokyo Shimbun survey found 34 percent supported a DPJ-led government against 20 percent for an LDP-led coalition.
The DPJ, which already controls the upper house, previously held 112 seats in the lower house and has indicated it would be willing to rule with the support of smaller parties, including the Social Democrats.
An opposition win would mean a dramatic shift in Japan's political landscape, which has for decades been utterly dominated by the LDP as it ruled in close cooperation with the state bureaucracy and big business.
The political behemoth has only been out of government once since 1955 and is credited with navigating Japan's course from the ashes of World War II to become the world's second largest economy after the United States.
But since then Japan has been hit by the economic "lost decade" of the 1990s, the latest recession and what many see as growing social disparity.
Amid the economic stagnation, concern has risen about the ageing population and its low birthrate, which are shrinking the workforce as Asian rival China is on track to soon replace Japan as the world's number two economy.
Amid the shifting mood, the DPJ has campaigned on promises of a kinder, gentler society, including greater social welfare spending to help families and boost domestic demand, while also pledging to reform the government.
Aso has accused Hatoyama and his party of lacking sound macro-economic policies, realistic diplomatic sense and experience in government.
The premier took credit Monday after Japan registered annualised 3.7 percent growth for the April-June quarter and rapped the DPJ's policies as handouts, saying that "pork barrelling without strategy will not lead to economic growth."