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433 in running as election campaign starts

Kyodo

Official campaigning got under way Thursday for the Upper House election later this month in a key gauge of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership over the past seven months.

Abe, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party, hit the campaign trail in Fukushima Prefecture, an area badly hit by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

“We cannot proceed with reconstruction as well as economic revival if the Diet remains divided. I want to end that,” Abe said in a stump speech, referring to the dominance of opposition parties in the Upper House.

By wresting control of the chamber from opponents and solidifying his power base to achieve key policy objectives, Abe hopes to revitalize the economy and revise the pacifist Constitution to enhance the nation’s defense capabilities.

Banri Kaieda, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, delivered a stump speech in Iwate Prefecture, also located in the quake-hit northeast.

“Japan is now standing at a turning point. It will be too late if we come to regret having moved in the wrong direction,” Kaieda said, criticizing Abe’s policies.

The opposition camp is struggling to erode Abe’s relatively high support rate, which he has enjoyed since the LDP trounced the DPJ in the December general election and returned to power.

Half of the 242 seats in the Upper House are up for grabs every three years under a combination of districts and proportional representation. A total of 433 candidates filed to run for the 121 seats at stake.

The LDP and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, need to win 63 seats to secure a majority in the Upper House, as they already hold 59 seats that will not be contested this time.

The ruling camp has an overwhelming majority in the more powerful Lower House, but lacking control of the Upper House makes it difficult for the administration to push its policy agenda through the Diet.

Abe was forced to step down as prime minister in 2007 amid political deadlock in a divided Diet that stemmed from his party’s defeat in an Upper House election that year.

His economic policy drive, dubbed “Abenomics,” to turn nearly two decades of deflation into mild inflation will be one of the main points in the election. Abe has pointed to a recovery in stock prices as evidence his policies are working.

“The real economy has been improving. We have no other way (than Abenomics) to beat deflation,” Abe told voters.

New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said in Saitama Prefecture, “The major focus (of the election) is how to beat deflation.”

By contrast, opposition parties highlighted concerns about possible downsides of Abenomics, such as higher consumer prices at a time when wage increases have yet to be implemented by many companies.

“If the LDP wins this election, your livelihoods will be endangered,” Kaieda told his audience. “We must face off against the Abe administration, which will destroy people’s lives.”

Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), co-headed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, has been critical of Abenomics for failing to sufficiently pursue deregulation in sectors such as agriculture and utilities. “The LDP has momentum but cannot implement in-depth reforms. We should not allow it to win everything,” Hashimoto said in Osaka.

Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe told voters in Tokyo that Japan must put an end to bureaucrat-controlled politics.