Tokyo: Feverishly giving speeches on the final day of campaigning on Saturday, candidates tried to woo Japanese voters before parliamentary elections that are widely considered a referendum on the Democrats` 10 months in power.
Debate over whether Japan needs to raise its sales tax has emerged as a key topic in Sunday`s vote, where half the seats in the 242-member upper house are up for grabs — although Prime Minister Naoto Kan has toned down his tax hike talk after his ratings took a hit.
The election won`t affect the ruling Democratic Party of Japan`s grip on power because it has a hefty majority in the more powerful lower house that chooses the prime minister.
But recent polls show that Kan`s party will likely lose seats in the upper house, which could complicate its ability to pass legislation and force it to find new coalition partners. Kan has set a target of winning 54 seats, the same number as the Democrats have now, but newspaper surveys suggest that the party will more likely get about 50 seats.
Promising to cut wasteful spending and bring more transparency to politics, the Democrats swept to power in lower house elections in August that ended 55 years of nearly unbroken rule by the conservatives.
So far, they have delivered mixed results. The Democrats have put the brakes on many large public works projects considered wasteful, but their first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, disappointed voters by breaking a campaign pledge to move a US Marine base off the island of Okinawa and getting mixed up in a funding scandal.
Kan, a plain-spoken former finance minister with a grass-roots activist background, enjoyed an initial surge in approval ratings when he came to office just a month ago after Hatoyama`s resignation.
But his immediate suggestions that Japan needs to raise its sales tax from 5 percent to as high as 10 percent in coming years has dented his Cabinet`s — and his party`s — popularity.
Kan argues that tax reforms are necessary to reduce the country`s ballooning public debt as the population in the world`s second-largest economy ages and declines. He has warned that if it doesn`t take aggressive steps, Japan could face a Greece-like fiscal crisis — a comparison that experts say is a stretch because most government bonds are held by domestic stakeholders who are unlikely to dump the securities.
Attempting to show that his party is fiscally responsible, Kan may have miscalculated, analysts say, assuming many voters think higher taxes are inevitable.
Over the last several days, Kan has shifted his focus to talking more about welfare and economic growth strategies, promising in speeches that the Democrats won`t raise the sales tax until after the next lower house elections, scheduled for three years from now, saying he wants a public mandate on the issue.
"We will not raise sales tax until the next lower house elections, not even 1 yen," he said in a speech Friday.
The Democrats and their tiny coalition partner, the Peoples` New Party, currently have a slim majority with 122 seats in the upper house.
The main opposition Liberal Democrats — a conservative party despite its name — are projected to pick up about five seats to bring their total in the chamber to about 76.
Throughout the country on Saturday, candidates charged around in campaign vans, speakers blaring and aides waving out the window, stopping here and there to give speeches.
A total of 437 candidates from 12 parties are vying for the 121 spots.
The public`s interest in the election has wavered as the campaign has coincided with the World Cup — in which Japan`s team did better than expected — and a scandal that has hit the traditional sport of sumo wrestling.
During the past two weeks, major Japanese stations devoted about as much time to the sumo scandal as to the election — and far more hours to the World Cup, according to calculations by the mass circulation Mainichi newspaper.