TOKYO — Japanese voted today in parliamentary elections that were expected to put the once-dominant conservatives back in power after a three-year break — and bring in a more nationalistic government amid tensions with big neighbor China.
Major newspapers were predicting the Liberal Democratic Party, led by the hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, would win a majority of the seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, although surveys also showed that many voters remained undecided just days before the election.
Voters have soured on the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which won a landslide victory in 2009 but could not deliver on a string of campaign pledges. Voters are also upset over Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's push to double the sales tax, a move he argues is necessary to meet rising social security costs as the nation rapidly grays.
Disillusionment with politics is running high in Japan, as is confusion over a hodgepodge of small, new parties that have sprung up in recent months espousing a variety of views.
Toshiyuki Kataoka, a 67-year-old retiree from Chiba, east of Tokyo, said that the Democrats proved to be novices running the country. "It was someone driving on a learner's permit," he said. But he added that he's willing to support them again because he's worried about the nationalistic influence of the LDP.
"The LDP ruled for many years, and you can't expect the Democrats to fix everything in three years," he said.
But not many Japanese were likely to be as forgiving as Kataoka.
With Japan stuck in a two-decade economic slump and pressured by an increasingly assertive China, voters may be turning back to the LDP, which guided the country for most of the post-World War II era, after taking a chance on the Democrats and being let down. The DPJ failed to carry out numerous promises, including cash handouts to families with children, eradicating wasteful spending and moving a controversial U.S. military base off of the southern island of Okinawa.
The country must also cope with an aging, shrinking population, a bulging national debt and intensifying competition from Asian neighbors such as South Korea, Taiwan and China.
"This election is about punishing the DPJ," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, suggesting the LDP's appeal may be its "brand image" as the "perpetual, natural party in power."
"It seems to me that people are driven by nostalgia," he said.