Tokyo: Japanese voted in a historic election on Sunday that looked set to oust the long-ruling conservative party and give the opposition the job of nurturing a recovery from the country’s worst recession since World War Two.
Media surveys suggest the untested Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) could win by a landslide over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has ruled for most of the past 50 years, although some analysts say those predictions may be excessive.
A DPJ victory in the lower house election would break a deadlock in parliament, where the opposition and its allies won control of the less powerful upper chamber in 2007 and can delay bills. Financial markets would generally welcome an end to the political stalemate.
“I don’t like what’s going on now in this country. Things have to change,” said Kazuya Tsuda, a 78-year-old retired doctor in Tokyo who voted for the Democratic Party.
Japanese media will announce the results of exit polls after voting ends at 8:00pm (1100 GMT). Later in the evening they will issue further projections based on partial vote counts.
Turnout was 41.83% as of 4:00pm (0700 GMT), the Internal Affairs Ministry said, down slightly from the 2005 election when voters turned out in droves to hand the LDP, then led by charismatic premier Junichiro Koizumi, a huge win.
Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama, 62, the wealthy grandson of a former prime minister, told voters on Saturday the election would change Japanese history.
“This is an election to choose whether voters can muster the courage to do away with the old politics,” he said.
The Democrats have pledged to refocus spending on households with child allowances and aid for farmers while taking control of policy from bureaucrats, often blamed for Japan’s failure to tackle problems such as a creaking pension system.
The party wants to forge a diplomatic stance more independent of the United States and build better ties with Asia, often strained by bitter wartime memories.
“I don’t think the LDP can change anything,” said Ryoji Kawakita, a 63-year-old white-collar worker who voted for the Democratic Party. “I think, even though it will be difficult, the DPJ might be able to achieve change because they have the will.”
Analysts worry spending plans by the Democrats, a mix of former LDP members, ex-Socialists and younger conservatives founded in 1998, will inflate Japan’s massive public debt and push up government bond yields.
The party has vowed not to raise the 5% sales tax for four years while it focuses on cutting wasteful spending and tackling problems such as a shrinking and greying population.
Japan is ageing more quickly than any other rich country, inflating social security costs. More than a quarter of Japanese will be 65 or older by 2015.
“It seems like the Democrats are just saying what the people want to hear, but I’m not sure they can follow through on these promises,” said Taku Yamada, a 30-year-old health-care industry worker who voted for the LDP.
The economy returned to growth in the second quarter, mostly because of short-term stimulus around the world, but the jobless rate rose to a record 5.7% in July.
“The Democrats have good policy proposals. But I’m not sure all of them are really achievable. If we have a handover of power, everything has to start from scratch and it would be ordinary people who end up suffering,” said Tomiko Machida, a 75-year-old pensioner who voted for the LDP.
“The new government needs to do something about unemployment. I see many young people idling around doing nothing.”
Incumbent prime minister Taro Aso has said the Democrats would be unable to manage the economy and the business-friendly LDP had better plans for growth. The LDP favours steps to promote corporate activity rather than helping consumers directly.
If victorious, Hatoyama is expected to quickly cement a coalition with two tiny allies whose cooperation is needed to maintain control of the upper house.
A new leader is expected to attend a series of international meetings including the UN General Assembly and a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in September.
A key challenge for the next government will be managing ties with China, forecast to overtake Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy next year.