World Bulletin / News Desk
Japanese voters headed to the polls Sunday to cast their ballot in a parliamentary election with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party expected to cruise to victory despite lukewarm support.
Abe, in power since late 2012, has yet to achieve a strong recovery in the world's third-largest economy nor his cherished goal of removing a war-renouncing clause from Japan's US-imposed constitution.
But voters, despite misgivings, appear willing to boost his party and its conservative allies, due mostly to a lack of faith in the opposition.
"No matter who is elected, nothing will change," Taeko Abe, a 85-year-old pensioner, said after voting. "I don't expect much from the elections."
Aoi Sakuta, a 23-year-old graduate school student, said: "I hope politicians will work harder to narrow the rich-poor gap especially among young generations."
Sunday's vote is for half the seats in the House of Councillors -- the less powerful upper house of parliament -- and polling stations across the country opened at 7:00 am (2200 GMT Saturday).
The vote outcome is expected to become clear shortly after the polls close at 8:00 pm.
Having been largely written off after a failed 2006-2007 stint as prime minister, Abe got a rare second chance when a left-leaning government collapsed in late 2012.
He promised to end debilitating deflation through massive easy money and other steps -- so-called Abenomics -- while beefing up Japan's defence, promoting conservative values and vowing to revise the constitution.
'Nothing will change'
Initial results were favourable with stocks soaring and businesses reaping record profits as the yen fell, making Japanese companies more competitive.
But the world's third-largest economy has since lurched from growth to contraction, with weak consumer inflation still weighing on sentiment.
"Abenomics has never failed but is still half done," Abe told voters in Tokyo late Saturday, winding up his election campaign. "All we have to do is to push for the policy firmly and steadily."
Katsuya Okada, head of the main opposition Democratic Party, separately told voters: "This is an important election, which is a watershed for Japan. Let's display our good sense as voters."
In a poll last week, 41 percent said they disapproved of Abe's economic policies, but support his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a less-than-resounding 37 percent, far outpacing 11 percent for the Democratic Party.
"As in past elections, voters are likely to passively endorse the Abe administration due to a lack of alternatives," said Koji Nakakita, professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.
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 politics but how they will vote, and in what numbers, remains to be seen.
Abe is hoping that the coalition and a loose group of hawkish conservatives from smaller parties can grab a two-thirds majority in the upper house, giving him the strength to start amending the constitution.
The document, which renounces Japan's right to wage war, is deplored by nationalists as a relic from Japan's World War II defeat.
Still, many Japanese staunchly embrace its pacifist ideal.
But any legislation that mustered the two-thirds majorities needed to pass both houses would face another hurdle in the form of a national referendum.
Voter turnout stood at 22.54 percent as of 2:00 pm (0600 GMT), down 0.12 points from the 2013 election. But early voting hit a record 13.2 million by Friday, accounting for some 12 percent of the nation's eligible voters, according to the government.