By Tetsushi Kajimoto
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) looks to be on course to win a solid majority on its own in the December 16 parliamentary election and return to power for the first time since 2009, media polls showed on Thursday.
Previous polls had the LDP relying on its ally, the small New Komeito party to control a majority in the lower house of parliament and form government. The LDP is now predicted to win between 257 and 306 seats in the 480-seat lower house.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who heads the LDP and would likely take the top job again if they win, is calling for radical monetary easing by the Bank of Japan (BOJ) to beat persistent deflation and a strong yen.
He has also vowed to stand tough against China on territorial issues over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The opinion polls by the Nikkei business daily, Asahi and other major newspapers, showed the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was likely to suffer a bad loss, possibly losing half or more of the seats it held in the lower house of parliament. However, surveys of some 100,000 voters also showed up to 40 percent were undecided how to vote.
"The polls suggest that the election is going to be the mirror image of the one held three and a half years ago. In that election, the voters decided to get rid of the LDP so they voted for the DPJ even though they did not have particularly high expectations," said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.
"Now they are poised to throw out the DPJ, which means a big victory for the LDP even though there is little enthusiasm among the voters either for the LDP or for its leader, Mr. Abe."
The newly launched, right-leaning Japan Restoration Party founded by popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, is likely to win around 50 seats, the polls showed. The party has been seen as a potential ally of the LDP.
The LDP has been widely expected to place first in the election, winning the most seats, but many pundits have predicted that the conservative party and its long-time partner, the New Komeito party, would either scrape by with a small joint majority, or fall short, requiring them to seek a third ally.
MONETARY POLICY IN FOCUS
Even if the LDP wins a majority on its own, it will still need to find allies in parliament's upper house, where no party has a majority and which can block legislation.
Monetary policy is one of the major issues in the election as voters scrutinize how parties plan to end deflation and keep the world's third largest economy from sliding deeper into a recession.
"The BOJ would be forced to work even more closely with the government once the LDP returns to power, likely leaning to more easing stance," said Tatsushi Shikano, a senior economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities in Tokyo.
"But given the LDP lacks a majority in the upper house, the party would still need support from the DPJ or some 'third force' parties in order to implement its policies," he said.
Abe, who quit abruptly in 2007 after a troubled year in office, is urging the central bank to ease its already hyper-loose monetary policy and wants to gear up public works spending to rescue the economy.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has criticized the LDP for being irresponsible given Japan's huge public debt, already the worst among advanced nations at twice the size of the economy.
Voters are also focused on the role of nuclear power after last year's Fukushima crisis, and how parties could cope with a rising China, ties with which have been chilled by a territorial feud that is feeding nationalist sentiment in both countries.
The DPJ swept 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. Critics say the fractious party failed to honored its pledges.
Noda, the DPJ's third premier in as many years, splintered his party in August by enacting, with opposition help, an unpopular sales tax rise to curb public debt.
The move sparked a stream of defections.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)