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Polls open in Japan, LDP performance key to reform
( 2003-11-09 10:32) (Agencies)

Early-bird voters in Japan began casting their ballots Sunday in a general election that will determine whether Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has clear public backing to press on with his economic reforms.

Opinion polls suggest a three-way coalition led by Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party will win a comfortable majority in the first Lower House election since he took office in April 2001.

But the popular prime minister also needs the LDP itself -- a mix of reformists and foot-dragging conservatives -- to keep its majority so he can claim a new mandate for an agenda of public spending cuts, privatisation, and cures for ailing banks.

Whether he achieves that goal could depend on last-minute decisions by Japan's "floating voters," who shun party ties and by some estimates account for up to 50 percent of the electorate of more than 100 million in a nation of about 127 million people.

Rain was forecast for much of Japan Sunday.

Masanori Ohmori, 61, was one of about a dozen mostly elderly voters who had gathered 30 minutes before the polls opened to cast their votes at an elementary school in central Tokyo.

Most were anti-LDP, and most were worried about their pensions -- a major topic in a rapidly aging society where one in five people is over the age of 65.

"This is the first time I have come here so early," the retired Ohmori said. "I came because I felt this time that I can help bring about a change in leadership.

"I don't think I'm alone. I think a lot of people who are worried about their pensions will vote today."

The election pits the dapper Koizumi's LDP and its two partners mainly against the Democratic Party, led by the less charismatic Naoto Kan, a former grass-roots activist.

The LDP has ruled Japan for most of the past half century by catering to core supporters such as farmers, small businesses and construction firms. Many of its candidates oppose reform.

Now, with its traditional support base eroding and the number of floating voters growing, the LDP is hoping Koizumi's personal popularity will translate into a decisive win.


Koizumi has said, however, that he will keep the alliance with his partners, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito and tiny New Conservative Party, even if the LDP wins a majority, since their support is vital in parliament's upper chamber.

The Democrats hope their manifesto -- including pledges to slash public works spending and loosen the grip of bureaucrats on policy -- will persuade voters they are the true party of change.

Koizumi is given mixed marks on reform, with some criticizing him for going too fast and others saying he's been too timid.

Newly merged with a smaller party, the Democrats look set to boost their numbers in the 480-member chamber from the 137 seats they hold now, moving Japan closer to the true two-party system many voters seem to want.

Political analysts say chances are slim of the Democrats hitting their target of 200 seats and toppling the LDP, since voters are probably wary of handing power to a novice party.

Some expect the wavy-haired Koizumi's charm, combined with signs of recovery in Japan's long-stagnant economy, to help the LDP win big, reversing a slide that led to its capturing only 233 seats in the 2000 election under the unpopular Yoshiro Mori.

Others are not so sure, given that as many as 40 percent of voters were undecided when recent surveys were conducted. The ruling bloc previously had 287 seats, of which 247 were LDP.

Investors in Japan's stock and bond markets would welcome a strong LDP showing since it could give reform efforts a boost and avert the chaos of an opposition upset.

A key factor will be whether voter turnout rises much above the 62 percent seen in 2000, the second lowest on record.

Analysts say a higher turnout would mean that more unaffiliated voters, who tend to favor the opposition, will be casting ballots. As of Friday, more than 1.6 million people had cast absentee ballots, 29 percent more than in the 2000 election.

No single issue seems to have caught fire during the campaign. Debate has covered a plethora of issues from how to reform the creaking pension system to cope with a fast-aging population, to a planned dispatch of non-combat troops to Iraq.

The troop dispatch, opposed by the Democrats, is controversial in a country whose military has not fired a shot in combat since 1945.

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