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Voters weary, confused as Japan looks set for 7th leadership change since 2006

Shizuo Kambayashi / AP, file

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, fifth from right, of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, poses with nine other leaders of political parties after a debate last month.

TOKYO - Kazuyoshi Enokido has lost faith in traditional Japanese politics.

"I'm placing my bet on something new because there's no hope with existing parties," the salesman told NBC News as he finished submitting an early ballot ahead of Japan's election, which is scheduled for Sunday.

"Even if it means being a bit more aggressive, I would like to see someone who can pull everyone up and exert his leadership skills," said Enokido, as he stood with his wife and one-year-old child in Tokyo's Ginza District.

Voters in Japan are witnessing one of the most complex and confusing general elections in the country's history. A total of 11 political parties, most of them formed within the past year or two, are vying for parliamentary seats.

Yoshihiko Noda, 55, is Japan's seventh prime minister since 2006. And if polls are accurate, another leadership change looms. Not everyone is happy about that prospect.

"In my honest opinion, I don't know why we have to keep changing our leaders," Hiroma Shindo, 22, told NBC News. "There's no way anyone can produce any results in just two or three years."

Most of the groups vying for power are splinters from the two main parties – the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has held power in Japan for most of the post-war period. Their familiar faces make it that much more difficult for voters to distinguish each individual party's position on key issues.

Citing surveys, Reuters reported Friday that between 30 percent and nearly 50 percent of voters were undecided with just days to go.

Franck Robichon / EPA

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda waves to voters after an election campaign speech in Tokyo on Thursday.

"I can't decide. It's hard to know exactly what we're voting for," said Hiroko Takahashi, a 51-year-old part-time worker from Machida, a city west of Tokyo, told The Associated Press.

The challenges faced by the country – the world's third-largest economy and one of the United States' most important allies – are formidable.

"This time around the voters are concerned about one single simple issue, which can be called 'security'," said Tomohiko Taniguchi, former spokesman for the foreign affairs ministry who now teaches at Tokyo's Keio University.

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Security covers a lot of ground.

"Job and economic security," he said. "Secondly, nuclear security. And thirdly national security. And what is complex is, these three 'securities' are not necessarily compartmentalized. They are mutually interrelated."

More than 20 years after its "miracle economy" bubble burst, Japan seems trapped in a vicious circle of sinking prices and weak demand as sluggish growth forces businesses to slash prices and frugal-minded consumers put off spending.

There does seem to be some agreement among the parties when it comes to the economy, Taniguchi said.

"Economic security is the one that overlaps party boundaries," he added. "There is little difference if you look at the platforms of LDP and DPJ. There is little difference between them and other parties are pushing similar agendas."

None of the parties would disagree that Japan needs to wean itself from its dependence on nuclear power after last year's Fukushima disaster, while at the same time, securing a stable source of power.

"Unlike the past two (lower house) elections, the main points of contention are not so clear and in that sense, it is hard for voters to understand," said Yukio Maeda, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo.

With the exception of the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, the majority of the political factions also acknowledge Japan's need to rebuild its diplomatic strength by restoring its alliance with the United States.

Relations deteriorated over the handling of a bilateral agreement to relocate a controversial key U.S. airbase on Okinawa Island, a situation made even more acute because of the contentious territorial dispute with China over a group of islands in the East China Sea.

Much at stake for US as tensions rise in troubled China Seas

Opinion polls by the Asahi, Yomiuri and Nikkei newspapers on Thursday predicted that the LDP was on track for a stunning victory in the election, with hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returning to power. They forecast that the LDP was headed for a hefty majority in the powerful lower house of parliament.

Abe abruptly resigned in 2007 for health reasons after leading the country for just a year.

Buddhika Weerasinghe / Getty Images

Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister who is currently leader of Japan's main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, waves to supporters from his car on Thursday.

Reuters reported that the polls suggested the LDP and its smaller ally, the New Komeito party, could even gain the two-thirds majority needed to break through a policy deadlock that has plagued the country since 2007.

If no single party wins the majority in the 480-seat lower house, a coalition government would be formed. With so many fledgling parties, a few, no matter how tiny, may end up wielding considerable clout, getting wooed to join a coalition government.

The new party with the most momentum -- and one that could be part of the coalition government -- is the Japan Restoration Party, led by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who have been pushing for a more assertive Japan capable of flexing its military muscle in territorial disputes with China.

Taniguchi said one thing appears certain: Japanese voters desire "a government that could stay long in power."

At Tokyo's Shimbashi Station on Friday, one retiree agreed with that assessment -- warning that political instability was damaging Japan's international reputation.

"The way our leaders come and go, it's too frequent," said the 66-year-old woman, who only gave her name as Ms. Itoh. "The world will stop paying attention to us."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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