Japan voters seen boosting PM Abe in parliament vote

A staff member of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) posts a poster for the July 10 upper house election with the image of Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister.
A staff member of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) posts a poster for the July 10 upper house election with the image of Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese voters are suspicious of the government's economic policies and don't trust controversial plans to change the pacifist constitution - but they are still expected to hand Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's coalition victory in parliamentary elections.

Analysts predict the ageing and conservative electorate will back Abe as the only viable choice faced with an opposition widely criticised as ineffectual.

"The others are horrible," said Tokyo resident Akira Hachinohe, 52, who plans to vote for Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.

"They are opposing the government for the sake of opposing it," he added. "I don't have a choice other than to vote for the LDP." At stake in Sunday's vote is half the 242-seat upper chamber of parliament.

 

Known as the House of Councillors, it is a motley crew of descendants of former lawmakers, ex-sports stars and entertainers as well as former technocrats and grassroots activists.

It wields less power than the lower, yet larger, House of Representatives, which sits for a four-year term unless dissolved early.

Having been largely written off after a failed 2006-2007 stint as prime minister, Abe seized a second chance after a left-leaning government collapsed at the polls in late 2012.

He promised to end deflation through public spending and easy money - so-called Abenomics.

He also sought to beef up Japan's defences, revise the constitution and promote conservative social values.

His forceful demeanour boosted confidence. Stocks initially soared and businesses reaped record profits as the yen fell.

But the effect has wore off and the world's third-largest economy has since lurched back and forth from growth to contraction, with the deflation dragon yet to be slayed.

In a recent poll by the top-selling Yomiuri Shimbun daily, 45 percent disapproved of Abe's economic policies. Some 74 percent said they did not "feel" the recovery Abe touts.

But the same survey indicated a 49-percent approval rating for his government.

"Anybody who can hang on and provide stability and predictability is good" in the eyes of most voters, said Saori Katada, who teaches international relations at the University of Southern California.

Even so, dissatisfaction with a lack of alternatives has turned off many from voting in recent years, resulting in falling turnouts that have only benefited the LDP's well-greased political machine.

"My salary has been cut because of the economy," said a 31-year-old construction worker, who declined to give his name and doesn't plan to vote.

"I don't think the election will change anything for me," he added.

A wildcard this time is that Japan's voting age has been lowered from 20 to 18 to encourage young people to take part in the political process.

To what extent they will turn out and who they will support remains unclear.

Abe's LDP and coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed Komeito, already enjoy a majority in the upper house, where members sit six-year terms. The other half of seats will be contested in three years' time.

But Abe hopes that the coalition and a loose group of hawkish conservatives from smaller parties can grab a two-thirds majority in the chamber.

With the ruling bloc already controlling a super majority in the lower house, a similar result in the upper chamber could give Abe the strength to start amending Japan's constitution.

The document, which renounces the country's right to wage war, is deplored by nationalists as a "shameful" US-imposed abomination, though many Japanese staunchly embrace its pacifist ideal.

But any legislation that mustered the two-thirds majorities needed in both chambers to change it would face another hurdle - a national referendum - and few expect Abe has the necessary political capital to win such a plebiscite.

While surveys have shown voter weariness over Abe's policies, some take a longer-term perspective.

"The economy and other things were horrible before" he came to power, said a 72-year-old real estate agent, who declined to give his name.

"Japan is safe. People are comfortable," he added. "I remember the time after World War II. People were poor."