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Japanese back at the booths for general election

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
December 15, 2012 -- Updated 0841 GMT (1641 HKT)
Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party (L) is leading opinion polls ahead of incumbent Yoshihiko Noda (R).
Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party (L) is leading opinion polls ahead of incumbent Yoshihiko Noda (R).
  • Japanese voters head to the polls Sunday with polls predicting a LDP win
  • Liberal Democratic Party is led by Shinzo Abe, who is likely to be the next prime minister
  • Winner will be tasked with reviving the economy, making a decision over nuclear power
  • 1,500 candidates seeking votes for 480 lower house seats

(CNN) -- On Sunday, Japanese voters will walk the well-worn path to the polls to vote in a general election that will give the country its seventh prime minister in six years.

If early opinion polls are correct, most voters will back the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) led by Shinzo Abe, giving it another stab at power three years after it was unceremoniously dumped for the Democrat Party of Japan (DPJ).

Until then, the LDP had held onto power for around five decades. But now the challenges are greater and they start with a struggling economy, regional tensions and questions over Japan's role in Asia.

"Because the Liberal Democrats have been in power traditionally for quite a long time they're seen as more a competent governing party," said John Lee, an adjunct associate professor at the Center for International Security Studies at Sydney University.

"The day-to-day business of the current party is seen as pretty dismal."

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Read more: Shinzo Abe 2.0:China's economic hope?

Abe is contesting Sunday's election against incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda who dissolved the lower house in late November, as part of a deal to win opposition support for a financial bill.

Noda's DPJ is expected to receive a pounding after disappointing the electorate during its three years in power.

Back in 2009, hopes were high that the party could reverse the rigor mortis that had taken hold of the country's economy. Then in March 2011, a monstrous earthquake and tsunami swamped large regions of the country's north, adding a hefty reconstruction bill to the government's growing debt.

Figures out Friday show business confidence is sliding as the high yen restricts export earnings and worried consumers curb their spending. It follows figures released last week showing the country has slipped into recession.

The leading contenders in Japan's national election started their 12-day campaign in Fukushima, the coastal prefecture that became the focal of last year's disaster after a nuclear plant was crippled, causing the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The devastated landscape is a reflection of the economic woes that successive Japanese leaders have tried and failed to contend with for years; a shrinking economy that's not longer competitive on the world stage, in close proximity to a rising economic powerhouse, China.

Read more: Back to the future in Japan

In his first official campaign speech in Fukushima City, Abe focused on economic arguments, saying he will act to counter deflation, weaken the yen and promote economic stability.

"We'll regain economic power in Japan," he said.

He's promising to tackle deflation, calling for monetary easing by the Bank of Japan to achieve an inflation rate of 2%. Abe also wants the BoJ to buy government bonds to fund a range of public works to stimulate the economy.

"He wants to effectively throw credit at the economy again which a lot of economists say will just deepen Japan's problems and deepen Japan's debt. But Abe's priority is to reverse deflation which is obviously a crippling phenomenon in the Japanese economy," Lee said.

Read more: Could 'Abe trade' be justified?

Since assuming power in September 2011, Noda has struggled to contend with the country's economic struggles. His deal-making over a financial bill effectively ended his term, forcing him to dissolve the lower house in exchange for opposition support.

He seized on a popular backlash against nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown and promised to phase out nuclear power by 2040. However, Noda faced fierce resistance to his plan to raise government revenue by doubling the 5% sales tax by October 2015. Now that's done, Henry said Noda's likely successor is set to inherit a smoother ride.

"When you think about it, the consumption tax is through. All (Abe) has to do is put a budget together for next year which should not be that difficult. And if he can, then they have upper house elections in July, and it could be fairly smooth sailing for him for at least a year, maybe two.

The LDP and DPJ are not the only parties contesting the election. It's a crowded field of some 1,500 delegates competing for some 480 seats.

Just two weeks ago, early polls put the LDP in front, but predicted that it would have to form a coalition, most likely with traditional ally the New Komeito Party.

Not any more.

Support has been growing so that the LDP is now predicted to win enough seats for a majority.

Still, if Abe does win, Henry says he'll have to strike a conciliatory tone with political rivals

"Abe's job will be to ensure that the opposition parties do not actively oppose. Because then, the way things work in Japan, the opposition party will just threaten not to show up in the Diet and that will just put everything into paralysis," he said.

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