As Japan entered the home stretch yesterday of nationwide elections, new polls dimmed the rosy forecast for a big win by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his ruling party.
Turnout for the weekend's highly contested vote could be nearly 80 percent, according to a newspaper survey released yesterday. That could spell trouble for the Liberal Democratic Party, which historically loses ground to opposition parties when people flock to the polls.
With just days to go, politicians were in a campaign frenzy to gain the upper edge, blaring their messages to pedestrians from megaphone-mounted trucks.
In his ubiquitous campaign posters, a mop-topped Koizumi urges Japan to "Get Moving!" with a forceful hand thrust, while opposition leader Naoto Kan tries to win votes with the pledge "I love Japan!" in his television spots for the Democratic Party.
To drum up attention, the Democrats were to later announce picks for a new Cabinet.
Koizumi has put his job on the line, saying that if his LDP-led ruling coalition doesn't win a majority of the 480 lower house seats up for grabs Sunday, he will step down as premier. Most analysts expect him to top 241 seats. But the Democrats could make the biggest gains, they say.
"Historically, higher turnout is bad for the LDP and good for the opposition," said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst with UBS Warburg in Tokyo.
Japan's nationally circulated Yomiuri newspaper said 79 percent of 225,000 people polled said they would "definitely vote" Sunday. Some 67 percent of polled independent voters said they would also cast ballots, the paper said.
The Democratic Party is expected to gain an additional 30 seats, giving it around 170 in the lower house, Okazaki said. The LDP, with 247 seats, could lose six and still meet Koizumi's goal.
Along with its two coalition partners, the LDP currently commands 285 seats.
As the two main parties consolidate power, some analysts speculate that Sunday's election could be a step toward a two-party political system, similar to that in the US.
"The two parties have been presenting the election as a two-horse race with the winner forming the government," the Yomiuri said in an unsigned analysis. "The election will probably mean a step in the direction of a virtual two-party system."
A two party climate is encouraged by some who say it would inject greater competition and accountability into Japan's political system. The LDP has ruled unchallenged for most of Japan's post-World War II era, and has at times become embroiled in scandals and sweetheart deals that critics say are symptomatic of an ossified political world.
A separate poll published yesterday by the Asahi newspaper showed support for the LDP at 30 percent -- well ahead of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, with 15 percent.
Yet recent polls suggest that a huge segment of the voting population -- about 40 percent of whom call themselves independent -- could easily swing the outcome. Okazaki noted that up to 80 percent of the independent vote traditionally tips toward the opposition.