Japan leaders in Fukushima as poll campaign starts

Japan's election campaign kicked off Tuesday with leaders of the two biggest parties in Fukushima, setting the tone for a poll likely to be dominated by the future of nuclear power after last year's atomic disaster.

About 1,500 candidates, fielded by 12 parties or standing as independents, are expected to vie for the 480 seats in the lower house of parliament in the December 16 election.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), pitched for voter support in Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture, just south of the crippled nuclear power plant.

Shinzo Abe, who leads the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was in Fukushima city, 50 kilometres (30 miles) away from Fukushima Daiichi, the scene of the world's worst atomic accident in a quarter century.

In an election likely to be focused on the growing debate on Japan's energy policy, nuclear power has become a point of difference among the myriad parties.

The DPJ pledges to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s while the business friendly LDP says only that it will decide over the coming three years whether to restart reactors that were taken offline after the disaster.

The upcoming vote will also be a verdict on the three-year rule by the DPJ which included the turbulent months after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters plunged the nation into its biggest crisis since World War II.

The centre-left DPJ swept to power in 2009, bringing to end to an almost half-century of unbroken rule by the conservative LDP.

Opinion polls have suggested the LDP is on course to come back to government as the biggest party but no single grouping looks likely to secure a majority. Observers say the election could lead to a feeble coalition government.

The poll also comes as Japan faces the divisive issue of whether to join talks on forming a trans-Pacific free trade group, a move highly unpopular with its protected and ageing farmers.

Long-term deflation and the running sores of territorial spats with important neighbours China and South Korea will also figure in the debate.

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