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FUKUSHIMA, Japan, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Candidates hit the
streets on Tuesday at the official start of a campaign for a
parliamentary election that is expected to return the opposition
Liberal Democrats to power but risks furthering the policy
stalemate plaguing the world's third-biggest economy.
In a sign that last year's nuclear crisis still weighs on
Japan's national psyche, both former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,
the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader, and Prime
Minister Yoshihiko Noda kicked off the campaign in the
northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, site of the world's worst
radiation disaster in a quarter century.
The role of nuclear power is one hot topic in the first
national poll since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami
devastated Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi
plant, causing meltdowns, forcing 160,000 people to flee and
destroying a myth that atomic power is safe, cheap and clean.
Voters are also focused on how rival parties plan to rescue
Japan's economy from what looks like its fourth recession since
2000 and cope with a rising China, ties with which have been
chilled by a territorial feud that is feeding nationalist
sentiment in both countries.
"Our mission is to protect the safety of our children and
the public, to protect our territory and beautiful waters," Abe
told a crowd in a city square in Fukushima City under cloudy
skies. "We are determined to win a majority with (LDP ally) the
New Komeito party and take back power.
"We just cannot afford to lose," he said to applause, though
one listener carried a placard targetting the LDP's decades-long
promotion of nuclear power saying, "It is the LDP that built
nuclear plants in Fukushima".
Media opinion polls suggest that of the 12 parties running
some 1,500 candidates, the LDP will win the biggest number of
seats in parliament's powerful lower house.
That would give Abe, who quit suddenly in 2007 after a
troubled year in office, the best shot at forming the next
government, probably with long-term ally the New Komeito.
But surveys published on Monday also show that the LDP's
lead over Noda's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has narrowed,
increasing the possibility that the main conservative opposition
party will need a third partner to form a government.
If so, the LDP would be eyeing potential post-election
allies in a bid to woo voters fed up with the two main
established parties. Options include the newly launched,
right-leaning Japan Restoration Party founded by popular Osaka
Mayor Toru Hashimoto, or other small groups, or even a chastened
Abe, a security hawk, insists he will give no ground in a
row with China over rival claims to tiny, uninhabited isles in
the South China Sea.
He wants to pressure the Bank of Japan to ease its already
hyper-loose monetary policy and gearing up public works spending
to rescue the economy, steps Noda has criticised as
irresponsible given Japan's mammoth public debt, already the
worst among advanced nations at twice the size of the economy.
How any of the parties would secure lasting growth while
reining in a ballooning social security bill in Japan's
fast-ageing society remains unclear.
The Democrats surged to power for the first time in 2009,
promising to put politicians, not bureaucrats, in charge of
governing and to pay more heed to the interests of consumers
than corporations in designing policies.
"We will say farewell to a society that relies on nuclear
power," Kyodo news agency quoted Noda as telling a crowd in
Iwaki, also in Fukushima prefecture. "This election is about
whether we will move forward with what we must do, or turn back
the clock to the politics of the past."
Critics, though, say the fractious and inexperienced
Democrats honoured its campaign pledges mostly in the breach.
Noda, the party's third premier in three years, succeeded in
enacting - with opposition help - a sales tax rise to curb
public debt. But that step sparked a stream of defections from
(Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Ken Wills)