Japanese cast ballots today in hotly contested parliamentary elections in which the ruling conservative party, battered by a laggard economy and voter desire for change after more than half a century of virtual one-party rule, was expected to suffer an overwhelming defeat.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for all but 11 months since 1955, went into the elections with all major polls projecting they would lose control of the lower house of parliament.

That would likely mean the fall of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his Cabinet and the creation of a new government headed by centrist Democratic Party of Japan chief Yukio Hatoyama -- who would become the first prime minister not backed by the LDP since 1994.

The vote is widely seen as a barometer of two related issues -- voter frustrations over the ailing economy, which is in one of its worst slumps since World War II, and a loss of confidence in the Liberal Democrats' ability to tackle tough problems such as the rising national debt and rapidly aging population.

But even with severe challenges pressing the nation, many analysts said the vote may not be about the issues so much as voters' general desire for something new after nearly 54 years under the Liberal Democrats.

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