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Tokyo (AFP) Dec 12, 2012
Japan holds elections Sunday that are likely to bring it a seventh prime minister in six years. And despite anger at the country's economic and diplomatic drift, voters who flirted with change last time look set grudgingly to return to what they know.
Although polls predict a return to power for the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, analysts say the one-time natural party of government could win as merely the least worst option.
North Korea's successful rocket launch on Wednesday is likely to swell support for hawks in the LDP and in smaller parties, in a country already feeling the heat from a territorial dispute with China.
"The LDP's lead in pre-election surveys does not necessarily mean people have high hopes for the party or its revival," said Koji Nakakita, a politics professor at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University.
"It is largely a result of voters' disappointment with the Democratic Party of Japan and the only option left in the elimination process," he told AFP.
The DPJ swept to an historic victory in 2009 after more than half a century of almost uninterrupted LDP rule.
Voters were smitten by big-picture pledges to wrest power from Japan's army of bureaucrats, cut red tape and "put people first". They also liked promises of free schooling, a bigger child support allowance and toll-free expressways.
But the party got off to a shaky start when the first of its three prime ministers flip-flopped on a pledge to shift an unpopular US military base from the southern island of Okinawa, angering locals and Washington.
Trust fell further with its often confused response to the tsunami-sparked nuclear crisis at Fukushima in March 2011, where reactors went into meltdown.
With the country still recovering from the disaster and all but two nuclear reactors offline, a polarising debate on atomic energy has emerged as one of the key differences among a dozen parties contesting the election.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's DPJ is vowing to "take every possible measure" to phase out nuclear power by 2040, while the business-friendly LDP says only that it will decide within three years on restarting reactors.
A raft of smaller parties, notably a rag-tag collection of centre-leftists, offer shorter timeframes for ditching nuclear, from instantly to a decade on.
Populist Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto has tied up with former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara in the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, producing a possible coalition partner for hire.
But commentators say differing views on key issues such as participation in a Pacific-wide free trade pact may prove to be its undoing.
Opinion polls point to an LDP-led coalition with the centrist New Komeito party.
That would bring a return to the premiership for Shinzo Abe, the first of six men to hold the job for around a year in a highly fractured and factionalised political scene.
Abe, whose stated reason for leaving office in 2007 was a now-resolved bowel complaint, has been hawkish since re-taking the LDP's helm this year.
After months of tensions with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea, he has pledged to boost maritime surveillance and re-write the post-World War II pacifist constitution foisted on Tokyo by its US occupiers, a nod to those calling for a more muscular military.
That stance could be boosted by North Korea's launch. The rocket passed over Okinawa, where Japan had stationed missile batteries to shoot down anything that threatened its territory.
Abe has been vocal in calls to kickstart Japan's limp, deflation-plagued economy, vowing to impose a three percent inflation target on the Bank of Japan and forcing it to buy bonds -- effectively deficit financing.
He has since rowed back after criticism he was endangering the independence of the central bank. But his comments helped pull down the high yen, delighting exporters hit hard by the surging currency.
However Abe's call for more public works projects to stimulate the economy was seen by some as a return to Japan's pork-barrel politics.
"The DPJ government has taken a 'risk-avoidance policy' through big tax hikes, restrained fiscal spending and moderate monetary easing," said UBS economist Takuji Aida.
The LDP would shift to a "reflation policy" through active fiscal spending on infrastructure and monetary easing with lower corporate taxes, he said.
Kenji Shiomura, strategist at Daiwa Securities, said problems remain whoever comes out on top.
"It's hard to imagine a change of government will lead to measures that have a real impact on the economy," he said.
"Behind the deflation is a structural problem -- a shrinking population with low birthrates. This problem won't go away."
Democracy in the 21st century at TerraDaily.com
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