TOKYO (AP) — The buzz over Japan's parliamentary elections this Sunday has been all about "the third force" — a clear sign of the prevailing disenchantment over both the party that ruled for decades after World War II and the rival party that took over in 2009.
But with more than a dozen parties vying for votes — many of them popping up over the past several months— talk in the media and on the streets about a "third" alternative has become a bit of an understatement.
The circus-like myriad of parties spans a spectrum of views from the super-patriotic, calling for a more hawkish Japan, to those linked to the grass-roots movement demanding an end to nuclear power, a call that has grown following the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant meltdowns last year.
Polls show the conservative, pro-big business Liberal Democratic Party that led Japan for decades is likely to win the most seats, as the rest of the vote gets split among the hodgepodge of parties. Still, voters don't seem terribly enthused about the LDP or their leader, Shinzo Abe, a nationalistic former prime minister who is the front-runner to get the top job again.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which swept to power in 2009 amid high hopes for change, is expected to lose badly. The public is disgusted after the Democrats failed to carry out one promise after another, including government subsidies for children, eradication of wasteful public spending and getting U.S. military bases off Okinawa, the tiny southern island that holds the majority of American troops.
Add to the mix a host of smaller, new parties, and many voters find themselves confused. Surveys this week show that nearly half of would-be voters still can't make up their minds.
"I can't decide. It's hard to know exactly what we're voting for," said Hiroko Takahashi, a 51-year-old part-time worker from Machida, a city west of Tokyo, echoing the sentiments of many.
"All the candidates are speaking out ahead of the election, but I'm not so sure they'll carry out any of their promises. I'm hopeful about the new parties, but I also wonder if I should trust one of the older parties," she said.
If no single party wins the majority in the 480-seat lower house, the more powerful assembly in parliament, a coalition government would be formed. With so many fledgling parties, a few, no matter how tiny, may end up wielding considerable clout, getting wooed to join a coalition government.
"It's after the election that action is expected, with all the small parties, as though the dice will be rolled all over again," said Tetsuro Kato, professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Kato and other experts say the convoluted state of politics reflects a Japan striving for direction as it comes to terms with the recognition that its go-go growth years are over, its future increasingly overshadowed by China.
The new party with the most momentum, and one that could be part of the coalition government, is the Japan Restoration Party, led by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, pushing for a more assertive Japan and capable of flexing its military muscle in territorial disputes with China.
Two of the country's most outspoken politicians, Ishihara and Hashimoto rail against the power of bureaucrats and embrace a forceful leadership style. Supporters praise their decisiveness and vision, while critics see them as dictatorial and dangerous.
Ishihara, 80, stirred up the latest dispute with China over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea both countries claim by proposing the Tokyo government buy the islands from their private Japanese owners.
The Tomorrow Party, formed just two weeks ago, wants to phase out nuclear power within 10 years. Leader Yukiko Kada, the governor of Shiga prefecture and an environmental expert, has a clean image. But that was tainted when she linked with Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran politician with a reputation as a power broker who bolted from the ruling DPJ earlier this year.
Another new party is called Alone Now. Its founder and so far only member, Taro Yamamoto, is a movie star who became an activist after the tsunami-triggered nuclear disaster.
With all the sprouting parties, the handful of pre-election debates has been characterized by a crowded stage with each party leader fighting to sneak in a coherent sentence. That kind of chaos may very well help the Liberal Democrats return to power, analysts say.
"All the candidates are just saying what they think we want to hear," said Risa Katsuta, 20, a university student who is still undecided how she will vote. "It was either the Democrats or the LDP all this time, and so I'm interested in the Restoration Party. But is it really any good?"
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