TOKYO (AP) — Japanese voters went to the polls Sunday in an upper house of parliament election expected to give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition a strong mandate as he pushes ahead with economic reforms and his conservative political agenda.
A victory would give Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and partner New Komeito control of both chambers of parliament — an elusive goal for the government in recent years.
That would make it easier for Abe to deliver on sweeping changes needed to cope with Japan’s rapidly graying population and bulging national debt. It also might give him the power to push through his party’s nationalist platform of constitutional reforms, a prospect that could further complicate already volatile relations with China and South Korea.
Abe says his first priority is sustaining a nascent economic recovery. Since taking office after the Liberal Democrats won a lower house election in December, the ailing economy has improved under aggressive monetary and fiscal stimulus.
“I want them to carry on doing their best as the economy seems to be picking up,” said Naohisa Hayashi, a 35-year-old man who runs his own business.
Despite the potentially huge stakes for the election, early turnout was lackluster, local media reported, with the rate of voters casting ballots down several percentage points in most areas.
Abe has promised to carry out reforms meant to boost Japan’s competitiveness. But he also faces a decision this fall on whether to follow through on raising the sales tax next April from 5 percent to 8 percent — a move many worry will derail the recovery.
His “Abenomics” economic program — has so far borne some fruit, lifting the stock market, boosting business confidence and helping exporters by weakening the yen.
“We are now doubtlessly on the verge of economic recovery where the money flow becomes cyclical inside society. This is the only way to go. That is why we cannot lose this election,” Abe said during a rally Saturday.
A convincing victory in Sunday’s election, where half the 242 seats in the less powerful upper house of parliament are up for grabs, may also embolden Abe and his backers in the LDP to pursue a nationalistic agenda he was unable to pursue when his first time in office, in 2006-2007, was cut short after he resigned for health reasons.
After more than two decades of economic doldrums, the Japanese public has grown weary of political bickering and ineffectual leadership. Bereft of an effective, united political opposition, they have opted for the perceived safety of the Liberal Democrats, who have ruled Japan for most of the past seven decades.
Retiree Isao Arai, 79, said he was fed up with the political confusion and paralysis that has dominated in recent years.
“With the recent political situation, party policies were complicated and hard to understand,” he said.
The Liberal Democrats’ “Recover Japan” platform calls a strong economy, strategic diplomacy and unshakable national security under the Japan-U.S. alliance, which allows for 50,000 American troops to be stationed in Japan.
They also favor revising the country’s pacifist constitution, drafted by the United States after World War II, to give Japan’s military a larger role — a message that alarms Beijing but resonates with some voters troubled by territorial disputes with China and South Korea and widespread distrust of an increasingly assertive Beijing.
Abe has upset both neighbors by saying he hoped to revise a 1995 apology by Japan for its wartime aggression and questioning the extent to which Korean, Chinese and other Asian women were coerced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
Revising the constitution would require two-thirds approval by both houses of parliament and a national referendum. Polls show the public are less interested in such matters than in reviving the economy and rebuilding areas of northeastern Japan devastated by the March 2011 tsunami.
Very little progress has been made on reconstruction two-and-a-half years after that disaster, or on cleaning up from the ensuing nuclear disaster at the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant that has most of Japan’s nuclear reactors still closed for safety checks.
Despite considerable public opposition to nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, many voters appear to be willing to support the pro-nuclear LDP because they are attaching a higher priority to economic and security issues.