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Japan kicks off election campaign, voters eye change

VOTERS in Japan swarmed to rallies in the summer heat today as official campaigning kicked off for an election that is likely to see Prime Minister Taro Aso's party ousted for only the second time in its 54-year history.

Polls show Aso's conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) headed for a loss in the Aug. 30 vote, which would usher in a government led by the opposition Democratic Party and raise the chances of breaking a policy deadlock in a divided parliament.

The Democrats have pledged to revive the economy by putting more money in the hands of consumers, hold off on raising the 5 percent sales tax for the next four years and adopt a diplomatic stance less subservient to top security ally the United States.

Financial markets would welcome the prospect of smoother policy-making as Japan shakes off a recession, although some analysts say the Democrats' ambitious plans could inflate already high public debt and push up long-term interest rates.

Facing a crowd of hundreds in the western city of Osaka, Japan's second-biggest metropolis, Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama accused the LDP of ignoring the interests of ordinary voters and said it was time for change.

"Everyone, the day has come to rewrite history," shouted Hatoyama, the next prime minister if his party wins the election, to applause and cheers from the crowd who gathered in hats, holding towels and parasols to beat the sun and sweltering heat.

"With your power, let's have the courage to start a new chapter of politics with you all at the centre," he said atop a van as voters waved banners and fans in yellow, the campaign colour for the Democrats' local candidate.

The decade-old Democrats have their best-ever shot at seizing power from the LDP, which has ruled for all but about 10 months since its start in 1955 and is struggling with new challenges such as a fast-ageing population and China's rising clout.

Data yesterday showing Japan's economy returned to growth in the second quarter will probably do little to revive the LDP's fortunes, analysts said, even though the figures marked the end of the country's longest recession since World War Two.


Aso, the 68-year-old grandson of a prime minister and known as a fan of "manga" comics popular with youth, took office last September in hopes of leading the LDP to victory, but voter support has slid after a string of policy flip-flops, verbal gaffes and scandals in his cabinet.

To woo back voters, Aso is crediting the LDP's economic stimulus packages with helping Japan weather the global financial crisis and has accused the Democrats of being weak on security policy and irresponsible on finances.

But even before Aso, voters' anger with the LDP had been on the boil after two predecessors quit abruptly after just a year each and the government was found to have mishandled millions of public pension records, upsetting the elderly in particular.

"It's hard to find anything that's gotten better under the LDP," said Kiyoshi Ikuta, 52, a part-time services worker in Osaka's bustling Namba shopping district ahead of Hatoyama's speech.

"We need a change to stop things from getting worse."

Some voters, however, wondered if the novice Democrats, a mix of former LDP members, ex-socialists and younger conservatives, would fare any better in delivering policies.

The Democrats want to distribute allowances for families with children, eliminate highway tolls and end a gasoline surcharge, but critics say the party is fuzzy on how it will fund these steps.

While the party also wants to reduce bureaucrats' meddling in policies to cut wasteful spending, it needs to tap their expertise to form legislation. On foreign policy, the Democrats had pledged to stand up to Washington but have shifted to a more pragmatic line ahead of the election.

"The Democrats' policies sound tempting, but I'm not sure if I can trust them to do everything they've promised to do," said Tadashi Kinoshita, 72, a long-time LDP supporter who works in real estate.


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