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August 19, 2009

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Japanese politicians hit the streets as campaign heats up

JAPAN'S political leaders took to the streets yesterday as campaigning kicked off in one of the most hotly contested elections the country has seen in more than a decade, a race in which the party that has ruled for most of the past 55 years is considered a distant underdog.

The elections for the lower house of parliament, to be held on August 30, will be a big test of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and could cost them control over the government and lead to the selection of opposition chief Yukio Hatoyama as Japan's next prime minister.

The Liberal Democrats have governed Japan alone or in a coalition for the past 55 years, except for a 10-month respite in the early 1990s.

"We will press ahead," Prime Minister Taro Aso said in his kickoff speech before a swarm of voters in a Tokyo neighborhood. "We are not finished with our efforts to see economic recovery. Recovery is our foremost priority."

Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, called for change.

"The day has come to change the history of Japan," Hatoyama said on a campaign tour in Osaka. "Let's step into a new era with courage."

The ruling party has been plunging in support because of the weak economy, increasing unemployment, a perceived lack of leadership and its support of higher taxes. Aso, who is party president, is also deeply unpopular for his failure to lead the country out of its troubles and his tendency to make embarrassing gaffes.

In a poll released yesterday by the Asahi, one of Japan's most influential daily newspapers, Aso's support rating was 19 percent, while his disapproval rating was 65 percent.

The poll said the ruling party has 21 percent support among voters, compared with 40 percent who say they will opt for the Democratic Party of Japan. It said 27 percent were undecided.

The Asahi poll of 1,011 voters was in line with other recent polls by major media. A poll of that size would normally have a margin of error of about 5 percentage points.

"The latest poll by the Asahi newspaper is a clear indicator that Aso's Liberal Democratic Party is in deep trouble with voters," said Hiroshi Kawahara, a professor of Japanese politics at Tokyo's Waseda University. "Voters are frustrated with the party's economic and welfare policies, and the poll showed they want a major change in government."

Aso and opposition leader Hatoyama have squared off twice in televised debates ahead of the official start of campaigning.

Aso has stressed that his party has delivered results and built up the country from the ashes of defeat in World War II in 1945.

Hatoyama, meanwhile, has said Japan needs a change of government to get itself out of its current morass.


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