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Polls Open in Japan in First General Election in Three Years


The polls have opened in Japan, in the first general election in more than three years. Surveys indicate Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party will win again.

All 480 seats in the powerful Lower House of parliament are up for grabs in Japan's national election. The major battle is between the ruling three-party coalition, led by the Liberal Democrats, or LDP, and the leading opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan.

The election is essentially a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's efforts to reverse a decade-long economic slump, and stop wasteful government spending on public works projects.

"The question facing voters is, do you think that Mr. Koizumi leading the LDP is more likely to be able to fix the economy and change the way Japan is run, or the only way to get change is to have a change of power?," said Stephen Reed, a politics professor at Chuo University in Tokyo

Newspaper surveys show that the ruling party is likely to triumph. That is no big surprise, since it has been in power since 1955, except for one short break in the early 1990s. But the Democratic Party is likely to secure more seats than the 137 it held in the last parliament.

There is no major difference in philosophy between the two parties, although they do disagree on specific issues. For example, the LDP wants to send troops to help rebuild war-torn Iraq now, while the Democrats oppose sending troops, until the country is safer and the Iraqi people have formed a provisional government.

The Democrats recently merged with another opposition party, and have worked hard to attract voters. Party leaders have issued a manifesto of policy pledges, and have promised to name a number of well-known people as Cabinet ministers.

Despite these attention-grabbing moves, Yoshiko Matsumi, 78, a grandmother from Osaka, says she is voting for the LDP.

She says old people like her generally vote for the LDP, because it has been running the country for a long time. She says, she hopes the winner will focus on protecting medical insurance and pension benefits.

Baku Matsumoto, a 28-year-old office worker in Tokyo, expresses the apathy many Japanese voters say they feel. He says he does not back either of the two main parties, and will abstain from voting.

He says he has no interest in the election at all, because he does not think any of the candidates can change Japan. He says none of them has any real power, and they all look the same.

If Mr. Koizumi's party wins as expected, he stands to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister in three decades.

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