Opposition scents victory as campaign draws to an end

Japan's political leaders wound up campaigning on Saturday ahead of key legislative elections that could see the end of the ruling conservatives' almost unbroken hold on power since 1955.


AFP - Japan's political leaders made their final pitches for votes Sunday ahead of landmark polls that could end half a century of almost unbroken conservative rule and bring to power a centre-left party.

Polls predict the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will trounce Prime Minister Taro Aso's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power for all but 10 months since its founding in 1955.

The DPJ could win more than 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house, the Yomiuri Shimbun daily has predicted after it questioned more than 85,000 voters, pointing to the "DPJ's overwhelming momentum".

"We are working so that, in the future, people will look back to this election and say 'Japanese history changed from here,'" DPJ president Yukio Hatoyama cried out as he addressed voters in western Osaka prefecture.

"We will stop bureaucracy-led politics and draft policies through dialogue with the Japanese people," said Hatoyama, a 62-year-old US-trained engineering scholar and the scion of a political dynasty sometimes dubbed Japan's Kennedy family.

Turnout is expected to be high, with more than 10 percent of Japan's 104 million eligible voters expected to have cast early ballots by Saturday.    Media exit polls are expected at 1100 GMT Sunday.

Opinion polls have for months pointed to a DPJ victory as the electorate has grown increasingly frustrated with the LDP's leadership during an economic downturn and despaired at the gaffes and slip-ups of the premier.

"Japanese voters will finally have a chance to deliver their verdict and bring a power change," said Takehiko Yamamoto, professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo. "Now that the DPJ's victory appears certain, the focus has shifted to how significant the margin of their victory will be."

The DPJ already controls the upper house with the support of smaller parties, including the Social Democrats. A two-thirds majority in the lower house would give the party carte blanche to push through legislation.

While few observers expect radical change if the DPJ takes power, Hatoyama has signalled that his party would seek to boost social welfare and back away from the current government's more hawkish foreign policy stance.

Hatoyama has said his party would not extend an Indian Ocean naval refuelling mission to support US operations in Afghanistan, the top foreign policy focus of US President Barack Obama.

But he has strongly supported Obama's initiative to fight climate change and to seek an eventual end to nuclear weapons, and has made clear that he sees the Japan-US alliance as the keystone of Tokyo's security stance.

Hatoyama, if he becomes premier, plans to attend this year's UN assembly in New York in September and hopes to quickly hold talks with Obama and other leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, local media have reported.

On the domestic front, Hatoyama has promised to soften the harder edges of Japanese capitalism, repair a frayed social safety net, reform the government apparatus and tackle fast-greying Japan's demographic problems.

He has promised child benefit payments and free schooling and to scrap highway tolls to put money into families' pockets. And he promises to return power to the people by reining in what he sees as rule by faceless bureaucrats.

Tough problems await the new administration, however, with the nation plagued by record high unemployment and lingering deflation, the Nikkei business daily said in an editorial Saturday.

The public remained pessimistic about the future and expected little change even with a DPJ victory, the Asahi Shimbun said in its editorial.

The LDP, painting itself as the experienced, safe pair of hands, has scoffed at pledges by the DPJ and questioned how Hatoyama will pay for them without raising taxes or driving up Japan's massive government debt.

"Worries have been voiced as to whether it is OK to let" the DPJ take government, Aso told voters in Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo.

"We are definitely sure that the ruling bloc's economic policies and stimulus packages were correct and have worked," he said.

For over five decades, the LDP has been part of an "iron triangle" with big business and the state bureaucracy that presided over Japan's miracle run to become an economic giant whose corporate titans remain world-leaders.

But the iron triangle has lost its lustre and been blamed for economic stagnation in Japan which, experts predict, will be eclipsed as soon as next year by neighbouring giant China as the world's number two economy.

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