TOKYO, Aug 18 – Japan’s election campaign kicked off Tuesday, less than two weeks before polls in which the centre-left opposition party is widely tipped to take power for the first time.
The conservative government of embattled Prime Minister Taro Aso has lagged in opinion surveys for months, although it was helped by data this week that showed Japan has emerged from its deepest post-war recession.
Aso and his rival, opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama, have been in election mode since the premier dissolved parliament in July, but Tuesday marked the official start of campaigning for the August 30 lower house vote.
Aso, campaigning in shirt sleeves on a hot summer’s day in western Tokyo, trumpeted his party’s economic stimulus measures a day after news that Asia’s biggest economy returned to growth in the April-June quarter.
"Our economic measures are kicking in for sure," Aso told the crowd.
The premier stressed that the recovery was still only "halfway" through and pledged to pay greater attention to closing the country’s growing wealth gap, promising that "we are now taking these issues seriously."
Hatoyama, on the stumps in the western city of Osaka, all but declared victory as he outlined his vision of a society with a stronger social welfare net and reforms to rein in the powerful state bureaucracy.
"The election for a change of government has begun at last," the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) chief boldly declared in an appeal to voters.
"The government, with a record of repeated mismanagement, should be ousted by the people. A change of government is a start toward building a new Japan."
More than 1,300 candidates from 12 parties were expected to file their candidacies for the 480-seat lower chamber of the Diet legislature.
The premier’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power almost without break for more than half a century and, together with a smaller party, held a commanding majority of 334 seats before parliament was dissolved.
However, opinion polls suggest voters have become disenchanted both with the LDP, as unemployment has risen to 5.4 percent, and with Aso, whose leadership has been marred by verbal gaffes, policy turnarounds and cabinet scandals.
Surveys have for months given a 10- to 20-percentage-point lead to the as yet untested DPJ, a broadly centre-left and pacifist group that also includes LDP defectors, like Hatoyama, and defence hawks within its ranks.
A poll by the Asahi daily Tuesday said 32 percent of voters backed the DPJ, against 20 percent support for the LDP. A Tokyo Shimbun survey found 34 percent supported a DPJ-led government against 20 percent for an LDP-led coalition.
The DPJ, which already controls the upper house, previously held 112 seats in the lower house and has indicated it would be willing to rule with the support of smaller parties, including the Social Democrats.
An opposition win would mean a dramatic shift in Japan’s political landscape, which has for decades been utterly dominated by the LDP as it ruled in close cooperation with the state bureaucracy and big business.
The political behemoth has been out of government only once since 1955 and is credited with steering Japan from the ashes of World War II through its "economic miracle" era to become Asia’s export-driven powerhouse.
But since then Japan has also been hit by the economic "lost decade" of the 1990s, the latest recession and what many see as growing social disparity.
Concern has also risen about the ageing population and its low birthrate, which are shrinking the workforce with Asian rival China on track to replace Japan soon as the world’s second-largest economy.
Amid the shifting mood, the DPJ has campaigned on promises of a kinder, gentler society, including greater social welfare spending and child payments to families that would boost domestic demand and help lift the birth rate.
Aso has accused Hatoyama and his party of lacking sound macro-economic policies, realistic diplomatic sense and experience in government.
One voter ready for change was Shigeo Utsumi, a 66-year-old retiree living in Tokyo who said he wanted to work but could not find a job.
"The LDP has had so many politicians in parliament, and what did they do?" Utsumi said. "It’s probably a good idea to let the DPJ take government, at least once. If they are not good enough, we can change again."