By Junko Fujita and Kiyoshi Takenaka
IWAKI/KAMAISHI, Japan (Reuters) - Three weeks before Japan's first national election since the March 2011 earthquake, none of the contenders has managed to win the hearts, and votes, of those hardest-hit by the disaster - with many feeling let down by the entire political class.
Volunteers and donations had poured in after the magnitude 9.0 quake off the northeast coast of Japan's main island Honshu unleashed a deadly tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 and triggered reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
But 20 months later, residents of towns and cities ravaged by the country's worst disaster in generations say the nation's biggest rebuilding effort since the aftermath of the World War Two has slipped off the political agenda.
"I am not expecting anything from the election results," said Akio Ono, president of seafood processing firm Ono Foods Co, in Kamaishi, a port with a population of 38,000, where more than 1,000 residents were killed by the tsunami.
"None of the politicians seem to be thinking about Japan seriously, they are not paying attention to the disaster-hit areas."
In Kamaishi, like many communities along the coast, scars of the disaster are still visible -- gaping empty lots left after buildings swept away by the tsunami side-by-side with prefabricated temporary buildings hosting shops and eateries.
The December 16 vote pits Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democrats against the Liberal Democratic Party, led by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a clutch of smaller parties.
Polls show Abe's LDP in pole position with about 23-25 percent, not enough to form a government without an alliance with one of its rivals. About 40 percent of voters are reluctant to back any party.
A common thread of some dozen interviews with residents of the disaster-hit region is their low expectations that any party has much to offer to an ageing region that was already struggling to stem its economic decline before March 11, 2011.
Those who plan to vote seem to accept that the election will be fought over other issues, such as national security, the stagnant economy or the role of nuclear power after the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
"Since this is going to be a national election, diplomacy and security should be the primary focus," said a 56-year-old civil servant in Iwaki, a city of 337,000 people just outside the 30-km (18.5 miles) evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The man, who declined to be named, backed the LDP, accusing the ruling Democrats of alienating the bureaucracy during their three-year rule and allowing the recent flare-up in tensions with China by weakening Japan's alliance with Washington.
Lawmakers have signed off 19 trillion yen ($230 billion) in public funds to cope with the aftermath of the world's costliest natural disaster and the fallout of the Fukushima crisis.
But an audit last month showed only about half has been spent because of bureaucratic inertia and bottlenecks. Some of those funds have also been funnelled to other parts of Japan and projects at best loosely related to reconstruction.
Besides the slow trickle of funds a lack of comprehensive rebuilding plans is another source of frustration. While the second anniversary of the disaster is fast approaching, many businesses operate in provisional facilities and thousands live in temporary housing not knowing whether they will be able to rebuild their homes or have to relocate elsewhere.
Managers such as Masahiko Numari, who runs a fish processing company in Miyako, who were able to rebuild their factories with government help, say they need more financial aid to expand.
The region, long dependent on fishing and farming, also craves new investment that would bring permanent jobs and stop the exodus of young people.
"I would like to vote for someone who would help improve the employment situation for young people like me," said Ryuhei Toubai, 23, who works nights as a bartender in Kamaishi but is looking for a day job that would pay his healthcare and pension benefits. "I want a stable job when I think about my future."
Many of those in towns and cities hit by the tsunami and the radiation crisis who are still in a limbo feel ignored.
"I am not going to vote this time," said Megumi Kinno, 40, who owns a pub operating in a government-run food complex in the coastal town of Ofunato and lives in temporary housing with her 16-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter.
"I don't know how much of what we want will be heard," she said, adding that too much aid money was caught up somewhere in the bureaucracy. "I wish all the politicians were washed away by the tsunami."
($1 = 82.3700 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by Mari Saito; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Alex Richardson)