By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's main opposition party, its image still tarnished two years after losing power, isn't even pretending to have a shot at ousting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's coalition in a Dec. 14 election. It does hope to give him a black eye, though.
Abe's ruling bloc is virtually assured of keeping power in a vote he has dubbed a referendum on his "Abenomics" recipe to end entrenched deflation and generate growth.
But whether the Japanese leader's gamble to go to the polls after just two years pays off by bolstering his clout depends on how many seats the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and smaller groups can win away from his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Scenarios range from the LDP and its partner, the Komeito party, adding a bit to the two-thirds majority they had before Abe called the poll, to the LDP losing 40 or more seats in a showing that would undermine his ability to push painful economic reforms and controversial policies such as easing the limits of a pacifist constitution on the military.
For the first time since its founding in 1998, the DPJ is not running enough candidates to win a majority of the 475 seats up for grabs on its own. Japanese media said the party was fielding 198 candidates. Final figures will be available later on Tuesday, the official start of the election campaign.
The LDP had 295 out of 480 seats before the lower house dissolution, while the Komeito had 31 and the DPJ 55.
"If the LDP loses much more than 30 seats, people inside the party will begin to wonder if this is the right path for the LDP," said Steven Reed, a professor at Chuo University. "Anything over 40 will be a danger to Abe and his leadership."
A mix of former LDP members, ex-socialists and centrists, the DPJ surged to power in 2009 on a promise to focus on ordinary consumers rather than the big firms and other vested interests favored by the LDP.
But the Democrats soon fell prey to policy flip flops and internal strife, changing premiers three times in three years.
DARK VOTER MEMORIES
DPJ leaders and candidates admit voters are scarred.
"The disappointment with the DPJ wasn't due to policies but governance - instability, infighting, defections and three premiers in three years," said Manabu Terata, who was an aide to one of those prime ministers and is now seeking to regain his seat in the northeastern prefecture of Akita.
"We haven't shown ... that we were able to improve and strengthen our governance as a party," he told Reuters at the party's Akita headquarters last week, adding the DPJ might win about 80 seats but that 100 would be a stretch.
Media polls show the LDP with a hefty lead in proportional representation blocks where voters cast ballots by party, which account for 180 members. Another 295 members will be elected from districts where voters select candidates, five fewer than in 2012 after electoral reforms.
But the Democrats could benefit from successful talks with rivals, such as the right-leaning Japan Innovation Party, to avoid splitting the vote in single-member districts by coordinating candidacies. Opposition rivalry helped the LDP to the big win that returned Abe to power in 2012.
A respectable performance could help the DPJ persuade voters it can again become a viable alternative to the LDP by promoting a realignment of opposition forces. Already the DPJ has absorbed defectors from smaller parties as well as some from a mini-party that disbanded.
But a limp showing could set the stage for more chaos.
"If current indications hold, the LDP is going to lose very few seats and might even gain a few," said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis. "The opposition will be in even more disarray and it will be a long time before real competitive politics returns to Japan."
(Editing by Dean Yates)