Japan votes with Abe set for 'super majority'

Millions head to the polls in general election seen as referendum on incumbent prime minister's economic policies.

    Japan has started voting in a general election likely to keep Shinzo Abe, the conservative prime minister, in power.

    Polling stations opened at 7am local time (2200 GMT) on Sunday in a snap election described by Abe as a referendum on his economic policies.

    Notes from the field: Harry Fawcett in Tokyo
    There was a fairly steady stream doing their democratic duty on Sunday - but the sense was of a duty reluctantly performed, among supporters and opponents of Shinzo Abe's government.
    One Abe voter told me he needed to be given more time, but in almost the same breath she said she didn't believe in Abenomics, and that it was a shame there was nobody else to vote for.
    The opposition is so weak and so atomised that Japan's Prime Minister knows he can give them a pasting by going to the polls right now.
    His economic reforms - Abenomics - have had mixed reviews. The first two phases - fiscal stimulus and monetary easing - do appear to have killed off deflation, even if growth has proved elusive.
    But it's the third "arrow", structural reform, that is proving the most difficult to fashion.
    The industries that have long benefited from Japan's regulated, protected economy, along with the vast constituency of elderly voters, stand to lose the most. And their friends in Abe's own party, the LDP, are loath to back measures that will bring them pain.

    Opinion polls predict his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner Komeito will sweep the ballot, all but unhindered by an unprepared and underwhelming opposition.

    Abe, 60, who won a landslide victory two years ago, is seeking a greater mandate for his "Abenomics" policies in the country's lower house of parliament.

    "I have been pushing for Abenomics, the policies designed to create jobs and raise salaries," Abe told voters in Tokyo's neon-lit Akihabara electronics district on the eve of the election.

    "Japan can be much richer," Abe said firmly in his last stump speech, sporting a white windbreaker.

    "Please let our coalition have power."

    Despite weakening popularity ratings, a recession and messy campaign finance scandals, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party is virtually certain to triumph thanks to Japan's tendency towards a one-party political system, voter apathy and a lack of viable alternatives.

    Early opinion polls have shown Abe's coalition is likely to secure more than 300 of the 475 contested seats, giving them the super-majority they need in the powerful lower house to force through legislation.

    The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, whose haphazard governance over the three years until 2012 left voters cold, could add a couple of dozen more seats to its tally of 62, but will remain ineffective, according to the surveys.

    Abe called the snap election for the lower house, saying he wanted a fresh mandate for his economic programne and other policies, and that he would step down if the Liberal Democrats lose their majority.

    Weakness among opposition parties makes that unlikely.

    Al Jazeera's Harry Fawcett, reporting from Tokyo, said the election had been met with confusion rather than enthusiasm.

    "A poll showed around 63 percent of voters were baffled as to why this election had to take place, there has been criticism of its cost, and the delays it will cause to government business," he said.

    Abe's two years in power have been characterised by a bid to reinvigorate Japan's sagging economy with what he has called the "three arrows" of Abenomics - monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural changes.

    RELATED: Japan's unwanted election: Why now?

    The policies are aimed at revitalising the economy through lavish injections of cash into the economy, strong public spending and reforms intended to improve the country's waning economic competitiveness.

    Since coming to power, share prices have risen and many companies have reported record profits as the Japanese yen has weakened in value, thanks to aggressive monetary easing.

    But the economy fell back into recession after a sales tax hike in April.

    Critics say Abe has not been bold enough to take on the vested interests that are the real key to reversing nearly two decades of economic underperformance.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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