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Japan's ruling LDP enters elections as underdog

JAPANESE cast ballots today in hotly contested parliamentary elections in which the ruling conservative party, battered by a laggard economy and voter desire for change after more than half a century of virtual one-party rule, was expected to suffer an overwhelming defeat.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for all but 11 months since 1955, went into the elections with all major polls projecting they would lose control of the lower house of parliament.

That would likely mean the fall of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his Cabinet and the creation of a new government headed by centrist Democratic Party of Japan chief Yukio Hatoyama - who would become the first prime minister not backed by the LDP since 1994.

The vote is widely seen as a barometer of two related issues - voter frustrations over the ailing economy, which is in one of its worst slumps since World War II, and a loss of confidence in the Liberal Democrats' ability to tackle tough problems such as the rising national debt and rapidly aging population.

But even with severe challenges pressing the nation, many analysts said the vote may not be about the issues so much as voters' general desire for something new after nearly 54 years under the Liberal Democrats.

They also note that although the Democrats promise to change Japan's approach on the economy and make Tokyo's diplomacy less U.S.-centric, their founders are both defectors from the Liberal Democrats and are not likely to present too radical a departure from Japan's current path.

"The election is more about emotions than policies," Tokyo University political science professor Takashi Mikuriya said in a televised interview. "Most voters are making the decision not about policies but about whether they are fed up with the ruling party."

Polls opened today at 7 am (2200 GMT Saturday). Japanese media predict a high voter turnout.

The Yomiuri, the country's largest newspaper, reported yesterday that analysts and most political parties are expecting turnout to be higher than the 67.5 percent in the previous lower house elections in 2005, and could go as high as 70 percent.

Trying to cut the ruling party's losses, Aso - whose own support ratings have recently sagged to a dismal 20 percent - called on voters in a final pitch 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 outside Tokyo.

Aso said more time is needed for economic reforms aimed at pulling the country out of its economic doldrums and asked for support "so our government can accomplish our economic measures."

He and the ruling party have stressed that they are the stewards of Japan's rise from the ashes of World War II into one of the world's biggest economic powers, and they are best equipped to get it out of its current morass.

But that argument has taken a beating.

On Friday, the government reported that the nationwide unemployment rate for July hit 5.7 percent - the highest level in Japan's post-World War II era - 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 promised to cut wasteful spending, hold off on tax hikes planned by the Liberal Democrats and put more money into consumers' pockets. That is a sharp contrast with the Liberal Democrats' heavy focus on tax-funded stimulus packages that increase government spending and debt.

That approach by the ruling party is seen as problematic by many economists. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts 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, while there is a shrinking pool of taxpayers paying into the system to support them and other government programs.

Still, doubts remain about whether the Democrats can deliver on their promises.

They are proposing an expensive menu of initiatives: toll-free highways, free high schools, income support for farmers, monthly allowances for job seekers in training, a higher minimum wage and tax cuts. The estimated bill comes to 16.8 trillion yen ($179 billion) when fully implemented starting in fiscal year 2013.

"I've supported the LDP before, but I'm not sure this time," said Eri Sato, a 25-year-old saleswoman in Tokyo. "My concern is whether the Democrats can really achieve their campaign promises."

Recent polls have shown voters want change, however.

Polls by major newspapers, including the Mainichi and the Asahi, said Hatoyama's party is likely to win more than 320 seats in the 480 seat lower house, sharply higher than the 112 it held before parliament was dissolved in July.

If the opposition party wins, Hatoyama will almost certainly be named Japan's next prime minister in a special session of parliament which could come in mid-September.

Japanese media have already started predicting a timeline of events, such as when a new Cabinet will be formed, on the assumption that the opposition party will be victorious.

Along with his fiscal departures from the Liberal Democratic Party, Hatoyama says he will rein in the power of the bureaucracy and wants Japan to be more independent from the United States, Tokyo's key trading partner and military ally.

But Hatoyama, who holds a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University, insists he will not seek dramatic change in Japan's foreign policy, saying the US-Japan alliance would "continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy."


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