Japan's ruling coalition will narrowly retain power in parliamen-tary elections yesterday, but only against an opposition that appeared set to make big gains, early exit polls indicated.
Facing his first trial in lower house polls since taking power more than two years ago, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called the tightly contested race a test of his ruling party's public support. All 480 seats in the more powerful chamber, including his own, were up for grabs.
But early exit polls appeared to dampen what the leader hoped would be a bolstered mandate for his platform of political streamlining and economic reforms.
Public broadcaster NHK predicted Koizumi's Liberal Democrats would take between 214 to 241 seats, with its coalition partners adding another 25 to 42 seats. The opposition Democratic Party, meanwhile, stood to make a major gain, boosting from 137 to between 170 to 205.
The forecast was based on exit polls of 530,000 voters across the country. NHK said the LDP-led coalition looked set to retain its majority, but warned that the race was still very close.
Democratic Party chief Naoto Kan was upbeat about his party's performance.
"I can barely speak," Kan said from party headquarters in Tokyo. "I hope this will lead to a change in government," he said. "But we must wait until all the votes are counted."
A separate poll by Asahi Television forecast the ruling coalition to win 258 seats. The LDP was leading, but with just 220 seats against the Democrat's 193, according to the Asahi survey.
Surveys indicated turnout was lagging behind the last lower house elections of 2000, when the LDP cruised to victory on a rate of 62.5 percent. With 30 minutes left to cast votes, about 51.89 percent of registered voters had cast ballots.
That was down 2.7 percentage points from the corresponding time in the 2000 lower house elections.
LDP leaders acknowledge the early outlook was tough.
"As the largest party, we should be striving to achieve a single-party majority," said Shinzo Abe, the LDP secretary-general. "But if the three parties of the ruling coalition achieve a majority, I will take that as a sign of having won the public's trust."
Unofficial election results were expected late yesterday or early this morning.