Japan's Koizumi tipped to win

With just a few hours to go before the polls open in Japan's elections, 103 million voters are set to give Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi his first direct mandate to rule.

    Premier hopes stronger mandate will help him push reforms

    Candidates were making their final pitches on Saturday as official campaigning hours were due to end at 8pm (11:00 GMT) ahead of the start of voting at 7am on Sunday (22:00 GMT Saturday).

    Koizumi hopes to be given the go-ahead to pull the world's second largest economy out of 13 years of stagnation.

    "We are finally seeing upturns," Koizumi said in a speech in Kawaguchi, north of Tokyo, in which he warned voters not to nip his reforms in the bud by passing power to the opposition bloc.

    Naoto Kan, who heads the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), urged voters not to abstain from voting, believing a high turnout would benefit his party.

    "Your vote can give birth to a new government," Kan said in front of a railway station in Tokyo.

    Polls favour Koizumi

    Opinion polls published by major newspapers on Saturday showed voters would prefer Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to maintain its virtually unbroken 48-year grip on power in a coalition with the Buddhist-backed New Komei and New Conservative parties.

    The Asahi Shimbun's poll of 1041 voters over two days to Friday found 40% of them favoured the LDP-centred government against 33% who would back a government led by the DPJ.

    Earlier polls predicted the LDP coalition would win between 250 and 270 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives, down from 287 in the last parliament but still a comfortable majority.

    Opposition eyes opportunity

    Bolstered by a merger in September with the smaller Liberal Party, the liberal-minded DPJ is eyeing the opposition's best chance to oust the ruling party since the New Japan Party took power for 11 months from July 1993.

    DPJ leader Naoto Kan promises no troops to Iraq

    The DPJ published an election manifesto for the first time in Japan in an attempt to campaign on policy, and is expected to secure around 170 seats compared to the 137 seats it held before the dissolution of parliament last month, mainly at the expense of smaller opposition parties.

    If it does, it would herald the emergence of a genuine two-party system along British or US lines, analysts have said, while cautioning that as many as 35 million voters are still undecided and many may not vote at all.

    Oddball stands out

    Sunday's vote will be the first test of Koizumi's policies by the electorate in a lower house election since he came into office mid-term in April 2001 after winning a party leadership race.

    With his pithy remarks, unruly hair and cultivated air of a "henjin" (eccentric or oddball), the charismatic Koizumi stands out from Japan's almost uniformly grey politicians.

    And, whether by coincidence or as a result of the government's policies, there are fragile signs of economic recovery showing after the "lost decade" of the 1990s.

    Japan's economy grew a revised 1% in the three months to June from the previous quarter for an annualised rate of 3.9%, while business confidence was at its strongest for almost three years in October.

    With his pithy remarks, unruly hair and cultivated air of a "henjin" (eccentric or oddball), the charismatic Koizumi stands out from Japan's almost uniformly grey politicians.

    Koizumi has pledged to achieve annual economic growth of above 2% in 2006 and to create three million new jobs in two years.

    That should strike a chord with voters more interested in seeing sustainable growth restored to the economy and unemployment reduced than in the privatisation of postal services and highway corporations the premier is pursuing.

    Iraq policy unpopular

    Koizumi has raised Japan's profile on the international front, winning praise from US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for supporting the invasion of Iraq and the wider war on terror.

    But during the election campaign he has played down plans to send Japanese troops to Iraq. The government's backing of the Iraq war was opposed by a majority of the public, and people fear Japanese casualties as violence escalates under US occupation.

    Kan's DPJ has said it would reform the bureaucracy, direct more government money to help small and mid-sized firms to create a strong economy, and would not send troops to Iraq.



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