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Japan's ruling party cast as election underdog

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[August 29, 2009]  TOKYO (AP) -- 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 Saturday in one of the most heated parliamentary elections in decades.

All major media polls have forecast that the Liberal Democratic Party will lose badly to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in Sunday's balloting 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, and a loss of confidence in the Liberal Democrats' ability to tackle tough issues such as the rising national debt and 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 Saturday 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, north of Tokyo.

Aso said more time is 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. That is a sharp contrast with the Liberal Democrats' heavy focus on tax-funded stimulus packages that increase government spending and debt.

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 to support them and other government programs.

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

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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) if fully implemented starting in the 2013 fiscal year.

"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."

But even with major issues pressing the nation, many analysts say the elections could be dominated not so much by policy differences but by voters' desire for something new after a half-century of virtual one-party rule.

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

The Liberal Democrats had 300 seats in the lower house before the elections, and several polls have projected the number could plummet to 100.

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 radical change in Japan's foreign policy, saying the U.S.-Japan alliance would "continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy."

[Associated Press; By ERIC TALMADGE]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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