* Opposition LDP expected to return to power
* Focus on nuclear power, economy and China
* Coalition jockeying likely after election
(Adds comment from Osaka Mayor Hashimoto, voter)
By Kiyoshi Takenaka
FUKUSHIMA, Japan, Dec 4 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. Options include the newly launched, right-leaning Japan
Restoration Party founded by popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto
in a bid to woo voters fed up with the two main established
parties, or other small groups, or even a chastened DPJ.
"Our economic policy is simple," Hashimoto told a crowd in
Osaka, western Japan. "We will destroy the vested interests who
until now have skimmed off all the cream."
Abe insists he will give no ground in a row with China over
rival claims to tiny, uninhabited isles in the South China Sea
and wants to spend more on defence and loosen the limits of
Japan's pacifist constitution on the military.
He wants to pressure the Bank of Japan to ease its already
hyper-loose monetary policy and to gear 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.
The pro-nuclear LDP says it will gradually restart off-line
reactors judged safe, while thinking about Japan's best energy
mix over the next decade. The Democrats aim to exit atomic power
by the 2030s, although some sceptics doubt their commitment.
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. Critics say the
fractious party honoured its pledges mostly in the breach.
"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," Noda told a crowd in Iwaki, also in Fukushima prefecture.
Noda, the party's third premier in three years, enacted -
with opposition help - a sales tax rise to curb public debt. But
that step sparked a stream of defections from the party.
Many voters have yet to decide how to vote.
"The LDP looks set to assume power. But I don't think
things will change drastically under LDP rule," said a
62-year-old public servant after listening to Abe's speech.
"If you live in Fukushima, you would want quicker
reconstruction and decontamination rather than constitutional
amendments and military buildup."
(Additional reporting by Yoshiyuki Osada in Osaka; Writing by
Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Ken Wills)