• Compiled From Wire Reports

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Leaders of the major parties made their final pitches Saturday ahead of the House of Councilors election, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi calling on voters to support his reform efforts amid dismal forecasts for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

“I am determined to accept criticism and further put the reform line on track,” Koizumi, president of the Liberal Democratic Party, told an audience in front of JR Osaka Station, acknowledging that the election is a referendum on his reform drives.

The party leaders took to the streets across the country in last-ditch efforts before the official 17-day campaign period ended Saturday evening.

Forecasts by major media organizations last weekend indicated the LDP would find it difficult to retain its current number of seats in the Upper House, although the media also showed that a major portion of the electorate was still undecided on which candidates and party to vote for.

While Koizumi’s LDP-led ruling coalition has a comfortable majority in the more powerful House of Representatives, a severe setback Sunday would likely diminish the prime minister’s clout.

Pressure could mount on Koizumi, whose term as LDP chief runs through 2006, to step down if the party falls dramatically short of its target, although senior officials of the LDP and its ally tried to play down such a prospect.

Meanwhile, opposition leaders tried to seize on apparent public frustration over pension reform and concern over the Self-Defense Forces deployment in Iraq.

“The question is whether we will be allowed to put forward the trend toward a two-party system and whether we will be able to move on to wresting power from the ruling bloc in the next general election (of the House of Representatives),” said Democratic Party of Japan chief Katsuya Okada while stumping for a DPJ candidate in Kikuyo, Kumamoto Prefecture.

Media forecasts indicated that the DPJ, which sharply boosted its seats in the House of Representatives in the general election last November, may capture more seats than the LDP in Sunday’s election, in which half of the Upper House seats are up for grabs.

In the final phase of the campaign, the LDP requested its coalition partner, New Komeito, to fully mobilize its vote-gathering machine to support LDP candidates facing tough competition from DPJ contenders in key electoral districts.

New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki said in front of JR Omiya Station in Saitama, “It will truly be a crucial period to put the economic recovery on track. The opposition bloc does not dare to discuss the economy during the campaign.”

New Komeito, which has allied with the LDP since 1999, is solidly backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization.

Later in the day, Kanzaki indicated that his party would continue to support Koizumi as prime minister as long as the LDP-New Komeito alliance retains an overall majority in the Upper House.

The LDP-New Komeito bloc has 79 seats that are not contested in Sunday’s election. To retain a majority in the 242-seat chamber, the two parties combined need to win at least 43 seats Sunday — a seemingly easy target.

While attention focused on the LDP-led coalition and the DPJ, two smaller opposition forces that suffered setbacks in the November election struggled to avoid disappearing amid the two-party competition.

Kazuo Shii, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party’s Executive Committee, said in Yokohama, “It is only the Japanese Communist Party that is able to prevent a hike in the consumption tax to finance the pension system and revisions to the Constitution.”

Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party, said: “The election will determine whether we will be able to live in peace. You cannot stop war from being waged under a two-party system.”

In Sunday’s election, a total of 320 candidates were vying for 121 seats.

Of the seats in contention, 73 will be filled by winners in 47 electoral districts and 48 by those elected under proportional representation.

Koizumi set the LDP’s election target at 51 seats — its strength in the Upper House as of early April — while the DPJ was aiming to increase the party’s 38 seats at stake to 50 or more by topping the LDP in terms of proportional representation and winning in as many of the 27 single-seat districts as possible.

Some 100 million people aged 20 or older are eligible to vote across Japan from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Advance voting

Nearly 5.8 million people cast ballots for the House of Councilors election ahead of the actual voting day, the government said Saturday.

The figure is 17.05 percent more than those who voted during a comparable period in the previous Upper House election in 2001, according to the Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry.

A total of 5,768,260 voters, or 5.6 percent of the nation’s registered electorate, cast their votes between June 25 — one day after campaigning for the election started — and Friday, according to the ministry.

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