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Poll: Japan voters were fed up with ruling party

MOST Japanese voters chose the opposition in historic weekend elections because they were fed up with a half century of rule by the governing conservatives, not because they were enthused by what the opposition had to offer, a poll said today.

The poll by the major national newspaper Asahi suggested the Democratic Party of Japan, which took control of the powerful lower house of parliament by winning 308 of the 480 seats, has only a conditional mandate and must make good on its promises to mend the flagging economy and lower the record unemployment rate quickly if it is to stay in power.

The Democrats are expected to form a new government and name leader Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister on Sept. 16, replacing outgoing Taro Aso.

Aso has announced he will step down as president of the conservative, pro-big business Liberal Democratic Party, which has led Japan for all but nearly 11 months since it was created in 1955.

In the first major poll since Sunday's elections, the Asahi said 81 percent of respondents felt the reason for the Democrats' win was that voters wanted a new administration. Only 38 percent said the victory was due to support for the party's polices, it said.

Only 32 percent of respondents said they felt the Democrats would be able to change the government significantly, while 46 percent said it would not, the poll said. It put the Democrats' approval rating at 39 percent.

The poll was a random telephone survey of 1,104 eligible voters conducted on Monday and Tuesday. It reported direct results and so gave no margin of error, but a poll of that size would generally have a margin of about 3 percentage points.

The Democrats acknowledged they will face tough economic realities when they take over.

"The economy is in a severe condition," Katsuya Okada, a senior Democratic Party executive, said Wednesday. "We deeply feel the responsibility of what we must do."

Japan, the world's second-largest economy, climbed out of a yearlong recession in the second quarter, but its recovery is still weak. The unemployment rate has risen to a record 5.7 percent, its highest since World War II.

In the longer term, Japan also faces a bleak outlook if it isn't able to figure out how to cope with a rapidly aging and declining population. The government estimates that the population will shrink from 127.6 million to 115 million in 2030 and fall below 100 million by the middle of the century.

That means fewer people will be paying taxes and more will be collecting pensions, straining tax coffers and threatening the government's ability to pay for public projects.

The Democrats' solution is to move Japan away from a corporate-centric economic model to one that focuses on helping people. They have proposed cash handouts to families and farmers, toll-free highways, a higher minimum wage and tax cuts. The estimated bill comes to 16.8 trillion yen (US$179 billion) if fully implemented starting in the 2013 fiscal year.

The party has said it plans to cut waste and rely on untapped financial reserves to fund their programs. But with Japan's public debt heading toward 200 percent of gross domestic product, critics have called the Democrats plan a fiscal fantasy.


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