The fate of the nation’s nuclear power program, its long-struggling economy, the sales tax hike, and recent strained ties with China and South Korea will be key points for voters to consider in the Dec. 16 Lower House election, for which official campaigning started Tuesday.
Opinion polls suggest the election will bring an end to the Democratic Party of Japan’s three-year rule and see the Liberal Democratic Party, which the DPJ ousted in the 2009 election, re-emerge as the strongest force, albeit without a majority.
With 12 parties vying for the 480 Lower House seats, the focus has turned to the role unaffiliated voters will play in determining the outcome of the poll and what kind of ruling coalition will be subsequently formed.
The general election will be the first one since 2009, when the DPJ, now headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in a landslide win ended over 50 years of almost continuous LDP rule.
Locations in Fukushima Prefecture, which continues to deal with the fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster and mass social upheaval, were visited by various party leaders starting their campaigns.
“The question in this Lower House election is whether we can move forward with what we should do or whether we turn back the clock to the old politics,” Noda said in a stump speech in front of JR Iwaki Station in the prefecture, alluding to the LDP, which ushered in Japan’s nuclear power program and the past regulators the industry developed cozy ties with.
The city is located 40 km south of the plant, which suffered three reactor-core meltdowns in March 2011.
Election boards nationwide acknowledged 1,294 people who filed their candidacies to vie for the 300 single-seat constituencies.
The LDP, headed by ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was still considered the front-runner in a weekend telephone poll carried out by Kyodo News, with a support rate of 18.4 percent.
If the LDP regains power in the first general election since the quake-tsunami disaster hit last year, the hawkish Abe will presumably become the seventh prime minister in six years. He was the first of the previous six with a short-lived stint.
“It is the LDP that will protect the beautiful land” of Japan, Abe said in the city of Fukushima in front of several hundred people. “We are aiming to regain power.”
The poll showed 41.5 percent of voters have yet to decide which party to support, indicating their ballots will largely affect whether the LDP can form a coalition government only with its pacifist ally, New Komeito, which is backed by the major lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, or have to find other partners.
The fledgling “third forces” — Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan) — have thus drawn attention.
Nippon Ishin was founded in September by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and is now headed by outspoken former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, 80.
Hashimoto, who made a speech with Ishihara, said, “It is not a pipe dream to change the shape of the nation.”
Nippon Mirai was formed last week by Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada, who opposes nuclear power. The party quickly joined forces with Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First) headed by ex-DPJ don Ichiro Ozawa and other small parties.
“We are aiming for a society that will not depend on nuclear power,” Kada said in the village of Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, which is located outside the no-entry zone but was ordered by the government to evacuate all residents immediately after the meltdown crisis started during high levels of radioactive fallout.
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