Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Sunday, 30 August 2009 12:01 UK

Japan awaits landmark poll result

A man accompanied by his children casts his vote in Tokyo, Japan, 30 August 2009
Turnout was slightly lower than in 2005, officials said

Polls have closed in Japan in a general election that looks set to end more than 50 years of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Japanese media are expected to announce exit polls shortly.

Opinion polls predict a substantial victory for the Democratic Party of Japan, which has promised to boost social security and help workers.

Japan is suffering record unemployment and its economy is struggling to emerge from a bruising recession.

At 1800 (0900 GMT), two hours before polls were due to close, 48.4% of people had voted on Sunday, the internal affairs ministry said - down from 50% in 2005 when elections saw the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi's LDP elected with a significant majority.

Voting conditions were not ideal, with typhoon-triggered rainfall fell heavily around Tokyo and a government warning that a swine flu epidemic was under way.

Change now?

The conservative LDP, currently led by Prime Minister Taro Aso, has governed Japan for all but 11 months since 1955.

Roland Buerk
Roland Buerk, BBC News, Tokyo

Well voting in this polling station set up at the Kyobashi Tsukiji Elementary School has been pretty brisk all day.

Turnout is expected to be high - the reason is the significance of this poll for Japan.

If, as the opinion polls suggest, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan wins, it will only the second time in more than half a century that the governing Liberal Democratic party has lost an election to the more powerful lower house of parliament.

The Democratic Party of Japan say they want to change the direction of this country - to shift it to the left.

They want to offer more social security.

But several media polls predict that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will win more than 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, reversing the election result of 2005.

Analysts say voters blame the LDP for the current economic malaise - and are angry enough to opt for change.

"I think we need a change now," 68-year-old Tokyo pensioner Toshihiro Nakamura was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

"It's too long for a single party to dominate national politics.

Haruko Kurakata, who said she had voted for an opposition candidate, criticised the frequent changes in Japan's leadership since Mr Koizumi stepped down in 2006.

"It's nonsense to see four prime ministers in four years without asking for the people's opinion," he said.

'Fed up'

As campaigning drew to a close, DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama said that voters were about to change history.

Taro Aso and Yukio Hatoyama

"This is an election to choose whether voters can muster the courage to do away with the old politics," he told crowds in Sakai in the west of Japan on Saturday.

The centrist DPJ says it will shift the focus of government from supporting corporations to helping consumers and workers - challenging the status quo that has existed since the end of World War II.

It has promised to cut waste within the bureaucracy and use the funds to increase welfare spending.

But Mr Aso questioned whether the DPJ had enough experience to govern.

"Can you trust these people? It's a problem if you feel uneasy whether they can really run this country," he told a rally outside Tokyo.

The DPJ already controls Japan's upper house with the support of smaller parties including the Social Democrats.

Japanese people cast their votes in historic elections

It won control of the house in July 2007, amid voters' anger at a series of scandals and the loss of millions of pension payment records.

Correspondents say voters' desire for change after so many years under the LDP could be a crucial factor.

Tokyo University political science professor Takashi Mikuriya told Japanese media that the election "is more about emotions than policies".

"Most voters are making the decision not about policies but about whether they are fed up with the ruling party," he said.

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