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Pledging to take power in the upcoming general election, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Party celebrated their merger Sunday at a national convention in Tokyo.

They had already registered the merger at the Diet; with Sunday’s convention, the Liberal Party was formally dissolved and its members absorbed by the surviving party, the DPJ.

“If the DPJ wins in the next general election and captures power, it will be the first change of administration through the victory of a No. 1 opposition party,” DPJ President Naoto Kan told more than 200 party Diet members and local chapter representatives packing a large hall in a Tokyo hotel.

During the meeting, Kan added five major pledges to the DPJ’s manifesto for the next general election. They are:

* Abolish all national government expenditure-specific subsidies for local governments within four years.

* Completely disclose all revenues and expenditures of political funds.

* Abolish the Japan Highway Public Corp. and end expressway tolls within three years.

* Cut the number of Diet seats and personnel costs of public servants by 10 percent within four years.

* Stop wasteful public works projects, including the Kawabe River dam in Kumamoto Prefecture, reclamation of Isahaya Bay in Nagasaki Prefecture and the Yoshino River dam in Tokushima Prefecture.

In a revised version of its detailed manifesto, the DPJ also pledged to use the unpopular consumption tax to prop up the ailing public pension system when the economy gets back on a steady growth track.

“If we are given the reins of government, we will form an administration that will radically change the politics controlled by bureaucrats,” Kan said.

DPJ leaders praised the birth of the new party, saying it is a precursor to the much-awaited two-party system in Japan, centering on the Liberal Democratic Party and the DPJ.

Calls for one major opposition party powerful enough to unseat the LDP-led government have mounted since the early 1990s, when a series of corruption scandals rocked the country and “system fatigue” was revealed in the LDP-dominated government.

Apart from eight months in 1993 and 1994, the LDP or an LDP-led coalition has controlled national politics since 1955.

The DPJ, already the No. 2 force after the LDP, now boasts 204 seats at the Diet. The LDP has 357.

In the 480-seat House of Representatives, which elects the prime minister, the DPJ holds 137 seats against the LDP’s 244. The LDP’s coalition partners New Komeito and New Conservative Party together hold 41.

DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada said the party’s target in the next general election for the Lower House — now expected to be held Nov. 9 — is to win a simple majority in the chamber.

Indeed, “the change of power” is a pet slogan that DPJ leaders have long used to encourage party members and supporters, although it has always sounded rather unrealistic given its small number of seats in the Diet and the overall weak support among voters for opposition parties.

But this time, experts and Diet insiders agree, the picture looks different.

“There’s no doubt the race will be a dead heat,” said election consultant Takayoshi Miyagawa, president of the Center for Political Public Relations Inc., an election-analysis and campaign company.

Miyagawa said the basic strength of the LDP has been eroding over the long run, with the party now running out of talented young candidates as many veteran lawmakers’ constituencies and supporters have been inherited by their sons.

Now, Miyagawa said, the fate of the LDP-led government hinges on the personal popularity of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe.

“If their popularity proves to be superficial, it will lead to the change of power,” he said.

Recent media polls appear to back Miyagawa’s observation.

According to polls in mid-August by the Asahi Shimbun, 34 percent of the respondents said they wanted a government centered on the DPJ — the same percent supporting the LDP-led government.

These were shocking figures for LDP executives. But support for a DPJ-led government has fallen sharply, while that for the LDP-centered administration rose in the Asahi’s latest September polls.

The polls were conducted Sept. 23 and 24 — immediately after Koizumi’s re-election as LDP president on Sept. 20 and Koizumi’s appointment of Abe as the LDP’s No. 2 man the following day.

Support for a DPJ-centered government was down to 29 percent while that of the LDP-led government rose to 45 percent.

What is the secret of the high popularity for Koizumi-Abe?

Observers say the prime minister has successfully presented himself as a lone wolf reformist fighting against the die-hard old guard in his own LDP, despite the snail-like pace of progress in substantive reforms.

Abe, whose appointment as the LDP’s No. 2 was seen as a dramatic move, enjoys high popularity among voters, thanks to his hard diplomatic stance against North Korea.

The abduction of some Japanese nationals by North Korean agents and strange news stories from the Stalinist state have been the favorite topics of viewers of tabloid TV shows.

The DPJ is now trying to win over voters through the substance of its detailed manifestos, rather than the popularity of individual politicians.

Prior to his re-election as the LDP president, Koizumi offered only vague election promises written on a single sheet of A4-size paper to hide huge policy differences with most of the rest of the LDP.

Meanwhile, the DPJ released 25 pages of specific policies, all substantiated with specific implementation measures, timetables and the source of financing, plus dozens of more policy ideas in a 49-page proposal.

“We are convinced that people will cast their vote after closely reading the contents of the policy proposals,” the DPJ’s Okada told a news conference Friday.

The Lower House consists of 300 members from single-seat constituencies and another 180 elected through proportional representation.

Okada’s primary target is to win a majority in the single-seat constituencies, which he says will automatically help the party secure a majority in the proportional representation portion.

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