Tokyo: Millions of Japanese braved typhoon conditions today for a snap election likely to hand Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a fresh mandate to revive the world’s third-largest economy and press his hard line stance on North Korea.
If pre-election surveys prove correct, Abe’s conservative coalition will cruise to a crushing majority to win a fresh term at the helm of the key US regional ally and Asian economic powerhouse. Polling stations opened across the country at 7:00am(local time) with voters battling high winds and driving rain as an election-day typhoon barrel led towards Japan.
Analysts say that if the weather affects turnout, it is likely to benefit Abe, whose conservative voters are more determined, putting the nationalist blue blood on course to become the country’s longest-serving leader.
The near-constant drizzle throughout the campaign has not dampened the enthusiasm of hundreds of doughty, sash-wearing parliamentary hopefuls, who have driven around in mini buses leading for votes via loudspeaker and bowing deeply to every potential voter.
But with little doubt over the eventual result, the suspense lies in whether Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)and its junior coalition partner will retain its two-thirds majority in the lower house. Such a “supermajority” would allow Abe to propose changes to Japan’s US-imposed constitution that forces it to”renounce” war and effectively limits its military to a self-defence role.
Ballot boxes close at 8:00 pm (local time) when broadcasters publish generally reliable exit polls. Abe shocked Japan by calling the snap election a year earlier than expected, urging voters to stick with him in the face of what he termed the dual “national crises” of an ageing population and North Korean tensions.
Pyongyang has cast a menacing shadow over the short 12-day campaign, after it lobbed two missiles over the northern island of Hokkaido and threatened to “sink” Japan into the sea. Nationalist Abe has taken a hawkish line during the crisis, binding Japan to the US stance that “all options” are on the table to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear threat and urging maximum pressure via sanctions.
Despite a clear lead in the polls, Abe enjoys only lukewarm support in the country and critics say he called the election to divert attention from a series of scandals that dented his popularity.But Abe faces a weak and fractured opposition in the shape of two parties that have only existed for a few weeks,the Party of Hope created by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and the centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party.
Koike herself was not even in Japan on election day, choosing to visit Paris for an event in her capacity as Tokyo Governor. The centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party may benefit from her decline and could become the second biggest party.
Despite the threat from North Korea, many voters feel the economy is a more pressing issue, as the prime minister’s trademark “Abenomics” policy has had limited success in returning Japan to its former glories.