RPT-Japan candidates hit streets in first nat'l vote since Fukushima disaster

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FUKUSHIMA, Japan, Dec 4 (Reuters) - 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.

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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 in a bid to woo voters fed up with the two main

established parties. Options include the newly launched,

right-leaning Japan Restoration Party founded by popular Osaka

Mayor Toru Hashimoto, or other small groups, or even a chastened

DPJ.

Abe, a security hawk, insists he will give no ground in a

row with China over rival claims to tiny, uninhabited isles in

the South China Sea.

He wants to pressure the Bank of Japan to ease its already

hyper-loose monetary policy and gearing 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.

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.

"We will say farewell to a society that relies on nuclear

power," Kyodo news agency quoted Noda as telling a crowd in

Iwaki, also in Fukushima prefecture. "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."

Critics, though, say the fractious and inexperienced

Democrats honoured its campaign pledges mostly in the breach.

Noda, the party's third premier in three years, succeeded in

enacting - with opposition help - a sales tax rise to curb

public debt. But that step sparked a stream of defections from

the party.

(Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Ken Wills)

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