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August 30, 2009

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Candidates' final push on eve of poll

THE conservative party that has run Japan for virtually all of the past 54 years was widely expected to face overwhelming defeat as candidates made their final pitches yesterday in one of the most heated parliamentary elections in decades.
All major media polls have forecast that the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party will lose badly to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in today's ballot for the 480 seats in the powerful lower house of parliament.
If it does, opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama is likely to become prime minister and form the country's first non-LDP Cabinet in more than a decade and only its second since the party was created in 1955.
The vote is seen as a barometer of voter frustrations over the economy which is in one of its worst slumps since World War II.
But it is viewed as a reflection of a loss of confidence in the Liberal Democrats' ability to tackle tough issues such as rising national debt and a rapidly aging population.
Prime Minister Taro Aso - whose own support ratings have sagged to a dismal 20 percent - called on voters in one of his final pitches yesterday to stick with his party, saying the Democrats are untested and unable to lead.
"Can you trust these people? It's a problem if you feel uneasy whether they can really run this country," Aso told a crowd in Oyama City.
Aso said more time was needed for economic reforms and asked for support "so our government can accomplish our economic measures."
He and the ruling party, however, have taken a big hit on the economic front.
On Friday, the government reported that the unemployment rate hit 5.7 percent - the highest level in Japan's post-World War II era - and that deflation intensified and families have cut spending, largely because they are afraid of what's ahead and are choosing to save whatever money they can as a safety measure.
Hatoyama has used the nation's economic insecurities as a strong argument for change.
He has promised to cut wasteful spending, hold off on tax hikes planned by the Liberal Democrats and put more money into consumers' pockets. However his party is untested in government.
Hatoyama's approach is a sharp contrast with the Liberal Democrats' heavy focus on tax-funded stimulus packages that increase government spending.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that the country's public debt, already the highest among member countries, may reach 200 percent of gross domestic product next year.
Making the situation more dire is Japan's rapidly aging demographic, which means more people are on pensions and there is a shrinking pool of taxpayers.


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