Campaigning kicked off Tuesday for the Nov. 9 general election, with a total of 1,159 candidates tossing their hats into the ring.

The election for the 480-seat House of Representatives is expected to be primarily a battle between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.

It is the first Lower House general election since June 2000 and the first since Koizumi took power in April 2001.

Voters will have a chance to render their judgment on the Koizumi administration’s structural reform policies, economic stimulus measures, pension reform plans and Japan’s assistance toward Iraq’s reconstruction.

The LDP hopes to retain a majority of the seats in the chamber, and plans to maintain the ruling coalition with New Komeito and the New Conservative Party, according to Koizumi.

Party leaders gave speeches in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Yokohama, Okinawa and other locations to kick off the 12-day campaign period, right after their members filed their candidacies.

In the western Tokyo suburb of Machida, Koizumi, in his first campaign speech, said, “The main issue in this election is whether to advance the reforms under the LDP-led and stable leadership,” amid signs of an economic recovery.

“We have to change the notion that bureaucrats are superior and the private sector does no important work,” he said. “Let the private sector do what it can. That’s the basic idea of my structural reforms.”

The LDP held 245 seats in the Lower House before its dissolution, and two former non-LDP lawmakers joined the party shortly after the dissolution.

The DPJ, headed by Naoto Kan, absorbed the Liberal Party last month. It hopes to win at least 200 seats and assume the government helm if the current ruling bloc loses its Lower House majority.

“This election is about whether two big parties can be created,” Kan said in his first campaign speech, in Fukuoka. “Please create a government led by the DPJ.”

Party rejuvenation may be an issue in the poll. The LDP hopes to appeal to voters by demonstrating that it is working to install new blood. It has barred its politicians age 73 or older from being candidates under the proportional representation segment of the poll, including former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, 85.

The Japanese Communist Party, which held 20 seats before the dissolution, is promoting social security measures and demanding cuts in public works and defense expenditures. Its chief, Kazuo Shii, stumped for JCP candidates in Yokohama.

The Social Democratic Party, which had 18 seats, is meanwhile trying to keep the pacifist Constitution intact. At a rally in Okinawa, SDP leader Takako Doi said, “The main issue is (whether to revise) the Constitution. The LDP said in one of its election pledges that it will revise it.”

Doi said the Constitution is thus threatened, indicating she supports maintaining the war-renouncing Article 9.

The number of candidates for the upcoming election is down some 245 from the June 2000 election.

Of the 1,159 candidates, 1,026 are competing in single-seat constituencies, while the 133 others are running in the 11 proportional representation blocs. Of the 1,026, 612 have concurrently filed candidacies in the proportional representation blocs.

Under proportional representation, voters cast their ballots for parties instead of individual candidates. Candidates on each party’s list are allocated seats according to the proportion of votes the party receives in each electoral bloc.

The LDP is fielding 336 candidates, including 277 in single-seat constituencies, and the DPJ has 277 candidates.

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