TOKYO - Japanese voters head to the polls Sunday in an election that is expected to shift the balance of power back to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, just three years after it was ousted in dramatic fashion by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
A win for the LDP would mark the return of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the 58-year-old party leader who abruptly resigned five years ago after less than a year in office, citing health problems.
Polls by leading Japanese newspapers show the LDP could be headed for a big victory, winning an overwhelming majority of seats in the powerful Lower House of Parliament. Yet, nearly half of the voters polled remain undecided, a sign of growing disillusionment in a country that has seen six leadership changes in six years.
The LDP has framed the election as a referendum on the last three years, and appealed to voters to "take back Japan." While the DPJ swept to power promising change, after a century of nearly uninterrupted LDP rule, the party has largely been seen as a disappointment. Anger over the Okinawa base issue and the handling of the March 11 tsunami and nuclear disaster, forced leaders Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan to resign as party leaders. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's push to double the sales tax to tackle Japan's massive debt has been widely unpopular.
The LDP has shifted significantly to the right, to appeal to voters' discontent. Abe has called for aggressive monetary easing and big fiscal spending to weaken a strong yen and lift the economy out of a 20-year slump. He has advocated a tougher stance against China, in the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku islands, called for more military spending, and pushed to revise Japan's pacifist constitution.
"The LDP today is not the LDP even back in 2009, and it's certainly not the LDP of 1992," said Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University. "In terms of the policy platform, in terms of the language used in politics, the LDP is far more to the right," he said.
Publicly, the LDP has tried to project a younger image this time, in part, to show that the party has learned from its embarrassing defeat in 2009, and reassessed its policies after listening to voters.
At an election rally held in the Tokyo neighborhood of Toyosu, 41-year-old candidate Akimoto Tsukasa drove in on a three-wheeler, before hopping off to shake hands with the large crowds of housewives and elderly women gathered. He quickly sprinted up to the top of the campaign van decked out with his face, and declared, "The LDP has changed."
"We are younger, we are different. Please put your trust in us again," he said, his message blaring over megaphones.
By Tsukasa's side was 31-year-old Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who waved to the young kids gathered, and repeated, "The LDP is younger, we have changed."
Orie Ishii, a 41-year-old mother who attended the rally with her 2-year-old son, said she wasn't quite convinced.
"[Abe] quit once before, so I'm worried he may not last this time either," she said. "But there are few other options. What can we do?"
Several third parties have emerged to appeal to disenchanted voters, with names like Your Party, the anti-nuclear Tomorrow Party, and right-leaning Japan Restoration Party, led by former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. Yet, the sheer number of alternatives, nearly a dozen parties in all, have muddled competing messages.
"Ishihara and [Osaka Governor] Toru Hashimoto don't even agree on key policy issues," Keiichi Fukuda, 69, said, referring to leaders of the Japan Restoration Party. "It's like they just got together to become members of the Diet. That's not real politics to me."
The retired chemistry professor says he plans to vote for the DPJ this time because he's concerned about Japan's energy policy. Noda has pushed to phase out of all nuclear reactors by 2030, while the LDP has generally supported the use of nuclear power, despite the Fukushima disaster.
"It's only been three years since the DPJ came to power, we need to give them a little more time," Fukuda said. "I'm not ready to turn back the clock yet."