TOKYO (AFP) - -
Japanese voters swept to power an untested centre-left party on Sunday in an electoral avalanche that ended more than half a century of almost unbroken conservative rule, according to exit polls.
The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Yukio Hatoyama, was set to storm home with more than 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, according to the exit polls of several television stations.
Voters frustrated with the government's handling of Japan's worst post-war recession punished Prime Minister Taro Aso and forced the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from office for only the second time since 1955.
The exit polls indicate the soft-spoken Hatoyama, 62, is on course to take over as prime minister at a time when the world's number two economy is just emerging from the recession and still struggling with record unemployment.
"I am thankful for the support shown by the public," said Hatoyama, who is expected to take over as prime minister in about two weeks once the new parliament or Diet convenes.
"Looking at the situation so far, I feel extremely grateful," he added, stopping short of a full claim of victory. "I think that the public has felt an extreme sense of frustration with the government of the ruling party."
Aso said he would resign as head of the LDP to "take the responsibility" for his party's crushing defeat.
"We have to make a fresh start swiftly by holding a presidential (party) election," he added in brief comments. "As one member of the party, I must strive for the revival of the LDP."
Hatoyama, a US-trained engineering scholar and scion of an old political dynasty, campaigned on a promise of change and people-centred politics against the business-friendly LDP, headed by fellow political blueblood Aso.
Recalling US President Barack Obama's election triumph last year, Hatoyama asked voters in a final campaign speech on Saturday at a Tokyo railway station: "Why can't we do what the United States could do?"
"I think we need a change now," agreed one voter, pensioner Toshihiro Nakamura, 68, after casting his ballot Sunday at a Tokyo elementary school.
"It's too long for a single party to dominate national politics."
The DPJ already controlled the upper house with the support of smaller parties, frustrating the LDP's agenda in the lower house.
Now, the DPJ looks set to take the lower house as well with the numbers to push through legislation, ending the deadlock in the previous Diet legislature.
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.
In foreign policy, it has signalled a solid but less subservient partnership with traditional ally the United States and a desire to boost its regional ties, promoting a European Union-style Asian community and common currency.
As premier, Hatoyama would be expected to attend next month's UN general assembly in New York and a G20 summit in Pittsburgh, and quickly seek talks with Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and other world leaders.
The LDP is credited with guiding Japan through its "economic miracle" but is also blamed for the malaise that set in during the 1990s and for free-market policies seen by many to have widened social inequality.
Aso had portrayed the LDP as the safe choice in guarding Japan's security and prosperity, and pointed to policies that helped end the recession.
But in the end the changing political tide swamped Aso's party. The prime minister, 68, had dismayed voters with a series of gaffes and policy turnarounds as divisions widened within his party.
An exit poll by TV Asahi predicted the DPJ would take 315 seats in the 480-seat lower house, while Tokyo Broadcasting System forecast the centre-left opposition party would win 321 seats.
Public broadcaster NHK predicted the DPJ would win between 298 and 329 seats, against a range of 84 to 131 seats for the conservative party.
The LDP -- which since 1955 had been out of power for only 10 months, in the early 1990s -- had 303 seats in the outgoing parliament to the DPJ's 112.