Braving muggy summer weather, an approaching typhoon and swine flu fears, Japanese went to the polls yeterday with many voters hoping for a political sea change after half a century of conservative rule.
"I think we need a change now," said pensioner Toshihiro Nakamura, 68, after voting at a Tokyo elementary school against Prime Minister Taro Aso's party, which has been in power almost continuously since 1955.
"It's too long for a single party to dominate national politics," said Nakamura, echoing what polls have suggested is a widespread view among Japan's electorate of more than 103 million.
Voters packed into polling stations from 7 am for an election in which the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Yukio Hatoyama, is seeking to snatch control from Aso's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The DPJ is seen as likely to win an overwhelming majority of more than 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament.
"This is an election to say goodbye to the LDP," said Haruko Kurakata, 77, who said she voted for an opposition candidate, in part because she had grown tired of the country's recent revolving-door leadership.
"It's nonsense to see four prime ministers in four years without asking for the people's opinion," she said, referring to frequent changes at the top since popular former premier Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006.
"I expect the LDP's long-term rule in this country will end and a new politics will reflect people's voices," said another voter, 45-year-old Shuichi Tanaka.
Two hours before polls were due to close, 48.4 percent of people had voted on the day, down from 50.0 percent at the same time in the previous general election four years ago, as Typhoon Krovanh dumped heavy rain on Tokyo.
In addition, more than 13 percent of eligible voters had cast advance ballots.
Worries about swine flu were also seen as keeping some people away from the ballot box. Some voters wore face masks to guard against the virus blamed for seven deaths in Japan, while polling stations provided hand disinfectant.
"I decided to participate in a vote for the first time in my life because I want to share in the feeling of bringing about a power change," said a 35-year-old Internet company owner in Tokyo.
"As a taxpayer, I want to see our taxes spent in a fair way, unlike the old-fashioned practice of dumping our money into public works that merely enrich local construction workers."
The DPJ has promised better social welfare, which it says would help recession-hit families, boost domestic demand and raise the birth rate to reverse a projected decline of Japan's fast-greying population.
"I feel it's not bad to let the opposition try at least once," said Chie Miyamoto, a 25-year-old nurse. "I hope the next government will pay more attention to social problems, including a lack of workers at hospitals."
But other voters expressed scepticism that any real change would be achieved by the DPJ, a broad coalition spanning LDP defectors and former socialists that has been internally split over key issues and has never held power.
"I'm afraid there may not be any change at all," said Masami Koike, a 54-year-old television production worker.
"The DPJ is in fact the shadow of the LDP because it was formed by former LDP lawmakers," said Koike, pointing out that key DPJ figures, including Hatoyama, were once members of the ruling party.
Takumi Aoki, a 25-year-old student, said: "I voted for a ruling coalition candidate because I don't think the DPJ will bring a real change. I think the party will be disbanded without achieving anything."
Malaysian lawmakers have condemned a group of Muslim protesters who trampled on a severed cow's head in protest at the building of a Hindu temple, and remained defiant yesterday over the act.
In the latest religious dispute to erupt in multi-cultural Malaysia, local media said 50 Muslims on Friday took the head of the cow – a sacred animal for Hindus – to the central Selangor state government office and trampled on it.
The protest was against the relocation of a Hindu temple to a Muslim-majority neighbourhood in the state. News websites Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider published pictures of the bloodied cow head.
Around 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are Muslim Malays, but the country is also home to large Chinese and Indian minorities, variously practising Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism, among others.
Lawmaker Khairy Jamaluddin, leader of the youth wing of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), criticised the protest as "emotional and insulting".
"[This] act did not consider the sensitivity and respect for other religions which is needed to maintain the country's harmony," he wrote on his blog.
"The act definitely will anger the Hindus and Malaysians," Khairy added.
Veteran opposition legislator Lim Kit Siang said the act was "deplorable".
"In a multi-religious society, the act of sacrilege to one religion must be regarded as an act of sacrilege to all other religions and the entire nation," Lim said.
State police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the protesters will be investigated for sedition, according to English daily Sunday Star, but the demonstration organiser told AFP they would not apologise and rejected responsibility for the incident.
"There is no point in us apologising as it was not our work. The cow head was brought in by an individual and we don't know that person," Mahyuddin Manaf, who led the group of local residents, said.
"Maybe that was just a way of expressing the anger. We just want the Hindu temple to be relocated to another area as this is a Muslim-majority area," he said.
Issues related to religion, language and race are sensitive matters in multi-racial Malaysia, which witnessed deadly riots in 1969.