TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese voters look likely to hand victory to a party that favours nuclear power in the first election since the March 2011 Fukushima radiation disaster - a result a baffled Greenpeace activist likens to one of the "wonders of the world".
But even if the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wins the December 16 election, it will not reflect any groundswell of popular support for nuclear power.
Instead, it would underline a lack of credible anti-nuclear political standard bearers in Japan and the ability of the LDP to focus the debate on security matters and the stalled economy.
An LDP win would also signal successful lobbying by Japan's "nuclear village", a web of vested interests including utilities, bureaucrats and lawmakers that remains powerful despite the world's worst radiation crisis in a quarter century.
"This is the first election since the Fukushima nuclear disaster and if it does not result in an anti-nuclear government, that will be one of the wonders of the world," said Kazue Suzuki, a campaigner at environmental group Greenpeace. "Since Fukushima, Germany rejected nuclear power and Italy rejected nuclear power. If Japan can't, the world will be amazed."
The March 11, 2011 massive earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 19,000 people and devastated Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi plant, triggering meltdowns, spewing radiation and forcing some 160,000 people to flee their homes, many never to return.
The disaster destroyed a carefully cultivated myth that nuclear power was cheap, clean and safe. It also mobilized Japan's often apathetic voters in huge anti-nuclear demonstrations during a summer of discontent.
Media surveys have shown a majority of Japanese want to exit nuclear power by 2030 if not sooner.
But opinion polls also show the pro-nuclear LDP with a big lead over Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), although a hefty chunk of voters remain undecided ahead of the lower house election.
"The LDP is the likely winner and is pro-nuclear, but it will not win because it is pro-nuclear but because the DPJ is so hapless and the economy is in trouble and people figure it is time for a change," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
The DPJ swept to power in 2009 for the first time, promising to put more money in the hands of households through such steps as child allowances and to boost the economy by re-orienting spending and cutting waste. But critics say its promises were honored mostly in the breach, and the economy is now widely believed to be in its fourth recession since 2000.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who as LDP head aims to get his old job back after quitting in 2007, is calling for hyper-easy monetary policy to rescue the economy and tough diplomacy toward a rising China as the core of his campaign.
"It's as if public opinion doesn't matter at all," Kingston said, referring to the sidelining of the nuclear issue by the main opposition party. "It reinforces perceptions about Japan's democracy deficit."
The small Japan Communist Party and tiny Social Democrats are firmly against nuclear power but unlikely to win many seats given that few voters back their anti-capitalist ideologies.
A group led by former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa has made opposition to nuclear power a key plank and could tie up with other similarly inclined small parties - among them a new one launched on Tuesday by Yukiko Kada, the female governor of Shiga Prefecture in western Japan.
Critics say the veteran deal-maker Ozawa, who quit the DPJ over Noda's plan to raise the sales tax to curb debt, lacks credibility given his checkered record of political flipflops, although Kada might offset his negative image and help bring together disparate anti-nuclear mini-parties.
Noda, for his part, is trying to strike a contrast between the Democrats as committed to phasing out nuclear power and the LDP, which promoted atomic energy during its nearly six decades in power and remains vague about the future even now.
The LDP says it will decide gradually on restarting reactors deemed safe by a new regulatory agency over the next three years and reach a conclusion on Japan's "best energy mix" in 10 years.
In its campaign manifesto Unveiled on Tuesday, the DPJ included a goal of cutting Japan's reliance on nuclear power to zero by the 2030s, echoing a government strategy unveiled in September after months of public and expert debate.
That sharp shift in energy policy was met with howls of criticism from business lobby Keidanren. Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan had planned to boost atomic power to more than half of electricity supply from nearly 30 percent.
Manufacturers argue the DPJ's shift would raise electricity rates and force production and jobs offshore.
"Noda is trying to emphasize nuclear policy to distinguish the Democrats from the LDP. Unfortunately, as a standard bearer for getting out of nuclear, Noda lacks credibility," said Andrew DeWit, a professor at Tokyo's Rikkyo University who researches energy policy. "Keidanren pulled out all the stops and made it very difficult for them to stand their ground."
A new party set up by popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto to woo disaffected voters also blotted its anti-nuclear copybook by dropping a target for ditching nuclear power after merging with a small pro-nuclear party led by the nationalist octogenarian ex-mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara.
Whether an LDP victory would spell business as usual for energy policy, however, remains far from clear.
Some changes are already afoot, including the introduction of a feed-in-tariff (FIT) program under which utilities must buy power from suppliers of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power at pre-set premiums for up to 20 years and moves toward more competition in the utilities sector.
"There are a number of factors that would likely stand in the way of a return to business as usual. But it's not impossible," DeWit said. "I think we can't dismiss the capacity of the nuclear village to ram through a 'back to the future' scenario."
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan