| FUKUSHIMA, Japan, July 4
FUKUSHIMA, Japan, July 4 Japanese Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe, riding high in opinion polls on hopes he can revive
a stagnant economy, urged voters on Thursday to back his ruling
bloc in this month's upper house election and end a six-year
Abe, back in power after his Liberal Democratic Party's big
win in a December election for the powerful lower house, is
expected to lead his coalition to a hefty victory in the July 21
poll, resolving a "twisted parliament" where opposition parties
control the upper house and are able to block bills.
He officially kicked off the campaign on Thursday in
Fukushima in Japan's northeast, which was devastated by a
massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that triggered the
Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"Because of a twisted parliament, rebuilding has not
progressed speedily, revitalisation of the economy has not
progressed speedily," Abe told a crowd of about 1,000 people
near a train station in Fukushima city.
Japan has suffered parliamentary gridlock ever since Abe led
the LDP to a massive defeat in a 2007 upper house vote. He quit
abruptly two months later due to the deadlock, plummeting
support and ill health. The main opposition Democratic Party of
Japan (DPJ) faced a similar headache after sweeping to power in
2009, only to lose a 2010 upper house election.
Public support for Abe and the LDP now far outstrips any
rivals, buoyed by hopes that his recipe of hyper-easy monetary
policy, fiscal spending and structural reform to boost growth
can end Japan's prolonged stagnation.
An opinion poll by the Tokyo Shimbun published on Tuesday
showed that 28 percent of respondents planned to vote for the
LDP in districts where members are decided by proportional
representation, dwarfing the 5.9 percent who intend to cast
ballots for the DPJ.
Voter support for the LDP in general contrasts with public
antipathy towards nuclear power after the Fukushima crisis, the
world's worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl. A huge earthquake
and tsunami on March 11, 2011, caused reactor meltdowns at Tokyo
Electric Power Co's Fukushima plant, spewing radiation
and forcing 160,000 people to flee, many never to return home.
The LDP has pledged to seek the understanding of affected
communities to restart offline reactors that are found to meet
new safety standards that take effect on July 8.
PRIORITY ON FIXING ECONOMY
Abe, a deeply conservative hawk who wants to revise Japan's
pacifist constitution to ease limits on the military, has vowed
to put priority on fixing the economy after the election.
However, many wonder if he will shift gears to focus on his
conservative agenda that includes constitutional reform.
Stress on his conservative agenda, including efforts to
recast Japan's war-time history with a less apologetic tone,
would further strain relations with China and South Korea, where
bitter memories of Japan's past militarism run deep. Tokyo is
already feuding with Beijing and Seoul over disputed islands.
Abe, in a debate with rivals on Wednesday, declined to say
whether he would visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese
leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are
enshrined with Japan's war dead, or whether Japan had engaged in
a war of aggression against China.
With a victory by the LDP and its junior partner, the New
Komeito, widely expected, the focus will also be on whether the
Liberal Democrats can win a majority on their own in the
242-seat chamber, where half the seats are up for grabs.
A massive win for the party could be a mixed blessing: it
would give Abe a mandate but also bolster the ranks of MPs who
may oppose painful reforms many say are needed to revive growth.
Whether the LDP-led coalition, together with smaller parties
that favour revising the constitution, can win a two-thirds
majority is another key question, although Abe has said he will
not rush to attempt any constitutional changes given wary public
opinion and a cautious stance by the more dovish New Komeito.
Abe wants first to revise Article 96 of the charter, which
requires approval of revisions by two-thirds of both houses of
parliament and a majority of votes cast in a public referendum.
He and the LDP want to change the parliamentary requirement
to a simple majority before the public vote.
Abe's resignation in 2007 began a series of revolving-door
leaders - Japan has had seven since Junichiro Koizumi served a
rare five-year term ending in 2006. A win on July 21 could set
the stage for the first stable, long-term administration since
then. No national election needs to be held until 2016.
At the same time, an anticipated bashing for the Democratic
Party, which surged to power in 2009 pledging to pry control of
policymaking away from bureaucrats and pay more heed to
consumers than companies, could call into question its future as
well as hopes for a true two-party system in Japan.