Tokyo: Japan's opposition party won historic elections in an apparent landslide on Sunday, media projections said, sending the conservatives to defeat after 54 years of nearly unbroken rule amid widespread economic anxiety and desire for change.
The left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan was set to win 300 or more of the 480 seats in the lower house of parliament, ousting the Liberal Democrats, who have governed Japan for all but 11 months since 1955, according to exit polls by all major Japanese TV networks.
The loss by the Liberal Democrats would open the way for the Democratic Party, headed by Yukio Hatoyama, to replace Prime Minister Taro Aso and establish a new Cabinet, possibly within the next few weeks.
ROSES AND SMILES: Yukio Hatoyama, leader of Democratic Party of Japan, at the party headquarters in Tokyo.
The vote was seen as a barometer of frustrations over Japan's worst economic slump since World War II and a loss of confidence in the ruling Liberal Democrats' ability to tackle tough problems such as the rising national debt and rapidly aging population.
The Democrats have said they will seek a more independent relationship with Washington. But Hatoyama, who holds a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University, insists he will not seek dramatic change in Japan's foreign policy, saying the US-Japan alliance would "continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy."
National broadcaster NHK, using projections based on exit polls of roughly 400,000 voters, said the Democratic Party was set to win 300 seats and the Liberal Democrats only about 100. Official results were expected early Monday.
TV Asahi, another major network, said the Democratic Party would win 315 seats.
The LDP's secretary-general, Hiroyuki Hosoda, said he and two other top officials plan to submit their resignations to Aos, who serves as president of the party.
As voting closed on Sunday night, officials said turnout was high, despite an approaching typhoon, indicating the intense level of public interest in the hotly contested campaigns.
"We've worked so hard to achieve a leadership change and that has now become almost certain thanks to the support of many voters," said Yoshihiko Noda, a senior member of the DPJ. "We feel a strong sense of responsibility to achieve each of our campaign promises."
Ruling party leaders said they were devastated by the results.
"I feel deeply the impact of this vote," former Prime Minister Shintaro Abe, a leading Liberal Democratic Party member, told television network TBS. "Our party must work to return to power."
Even before the vote was over, the Democrats pounded the ruling party for driving the country into a ditch.
Japan's unemployment has spiked to record 5.7 percent while deflation has intensified and families have cut spending because they are insecure about the future. Making the situation more dire is Japan's aging demographic--which means more people are on pensions and there is a shrinking pool of taxpayers to support them and other government programs.
"The ruling party has betrayed the people over the past four years, driving the economy to the edge of a cliff, building up more than 6 trillion yen ($64.1 billion) in public debt, wasting money, ruining our social security net and widening the gap between the rich and poor," the Democratic Party said in a statement as voting began Sunday.
"We will change Japan," it said.
Hatoyama's party held 112 seats before parliament was dissolved in July.
The Democratic Party would only need to win a simple majority of 241 seats in the lower house to assure that it can name the next prime minister. The 300-plus level would allow it and its two smaller allies the two-thirds majority they need in the lower house to pass bills.
Many voters said that although the Democrats are largely untested in power and doubts remain about whether they will be able to deliver on their promises, the country needs a change.
"We don't know if the Democrats can really make a difference, but we want to give them a chance," Junko Shinoda, 59, a government employee, said after voting at a crowded polling center in downtown Tokyo.
Having the Democrats in power would smooth policy debates in parliament, which has been deadlocked since the Democrats and their allies took over the less powerful upper house in 2007.
With only two weeks of official campaigning that focused mainly on broadstroke appeals rather than specific policies, many analysts said the elections were not so much about issues as voters' general desire for something new after more than a half century under the Liberal Democrats.
The Democrats are proposing toll-free highways, free high schools, income support for farmers, monthly allowances for job seekers in training, a higher minimum wage and tax cuts. The estimated bill comes to 16.8 trillion yen ($179 billion) if fully implemented starting in fiscal year 2013.
Aso--whose own support ratings have sagged to a dismal 20 percent--repeatedly stressed his party led Japan's rise from the ashes of World War II into one of the world's biggest economic powers and are best equipped to get it out of its current morass.
But the current state of the economy has been a major liability for his party.
"It's revolutionary," said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Tokyo's Nihon University. "It's the first real change of government" Japan has had in six decades.