Ruling and opposition leaders started campaigning across the country on Saturday, one day after the House of Representatives was dissolved for a Nov. 9 general election, in a race to see which of the nation’s two biggest parties will take the reins of government.

But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, took a full day off, leaving the bullhorn to his deputy in the party — the young and popular Shinzo Abe — who he hopes will help him steer the party to victory.

Koizumi will return to work Sunday. He is exhausted from a long series of events, including the LDP presidential election and Cabinet reshuffle, as well as a visit to Bali, Indonesia, for meetings with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China and South Korea, his aides said.

Given the tough fight expected between the ruling and opposition camps, the National Police Agency will assemble prefectural policy chiefs nationwide for a meeting in Tokyo to discuss stepping up measures against illegal election practices.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department said it will mobilize about 2,600 officers, adding that it had issued nine warnings as of Friday, down 23 from the previous election in 2000.

Official campaigning will begin Oct. 28, with 1,111 candidates, including most of the 430 incumbents, planning to run as of Friday. But ruling and opposition parties scrambled immediately after the dissolution to hit the road for canvassing tours.

“We must win,” said Abe, the LDP secretary general, who visited the city of Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, on Saturday morning to attend an office-opening ceremony for a former lawmaker. “The Koizumi reforms are progressing at a tremendous speed.”

Abe was to travel to Kobe in the evening to join Takenori Kanzaki, who heads the New Komeito party, to appeal for solidarity in the ruling tripartite coalition at a New Komeito-sponsored forum.

Hiroshi Kumagai, who leads the other coalition member, the New Conservative Party, returned to his home constituency of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, to open his election office.

“We must get through this contest so the tripartite coalition can push through the reforms,” Kumagai said.

According to the LDP, the party plans to plan executive members’ canvassing tours and events around Abe and Koizumi — the “two faces” of the party.

According to his aides, Koizumi will make campaign speeches at a pace of two venues per day while simultaneously fulfilling his duties as prime minister, including a visit to Bangkok for an Oct. 20-21 summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

As for the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, party leader Naoto Kan was to travel to Ehime Prefecture on Saturday afternoon for street speeches at four locations, while DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada was scheduled to speak in Saitama and Fukushima prefectures.

Kazuo Shi, who leads the Japanese Communist Party, was to address a general assembly of the party’s Central Committee in Tokyo, while Social Democratic Party leader Takako Doi will speak in her home constituency of Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

The LDP has ruled Japan since its creation in 1955, except for a short period in 1993-1994. The key question in the election is whether voters are willing to push the LDP off its pedestal and hand power over to the DPJ.

The DPJ merged with the smaller Liberal Party in late September to create an opposition party large enough to challenge the LDP.

Koizumi wants to secure an overall majority in the lower chamber, a target that the LDP has failed to achieve in the last three polls, in 1993, 1996 and 2000.

The LDP had 244 seats in the lower chamber before it was dissolved, while the DPJ had 137. The LDP won only 233 seats in the last poll and later had to recruit several independent lawmakers as well as some from other parties.

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