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Leaders of the ruling and opposition parties squared off during a debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on Monday, a day before official campaigning got underway for the Dec. 14 Lower House election.

During the two-hour debate, attended by the leaders of eight parties, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued that his economic policies have increased employment and wages. By continuing with his “Abenomics” policies, he said the economy will grow strong enough to weather the second stage of the consumption tax hike to 10 percent, which he has promised to delay until April 2017.

“We have, at last, gained the momentum to exit from deflation that we’ve suffered for the past 15 years,” said Abe, who is also the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. “It is still only halfway. But this is the only way (to fix the economy).”

Abe repeated a pledge not to postpone the tax hike again, after announcing last month that the hike would be pushed back by 18 months, from October 2015. The only way he would deviate from the new timeline, he said, was if a another global financial crisis struck.

Banri Kaieda, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, slammed Abenomics, saying that in real terms, wages have fallen for 15 consecutive months, effectively lowering the standard of living for much of the public.

“If the Abe administration’s economic policies continue, the weakening yen will continue to push up the prices of (imported goods) and expand (wealth) disparities,” Kaieda said.

The government must focus on improving people’s economic conditions, he added, such as by increasing full-time employment.

Abe replied that he believes wages in real terms will begin to rise next year if the government continues to pursue his economic policies — a combination of radical monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform vows.

Ichiro Ozawa, the head of Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party), said that Abenomics has increased the number of nonregular employees, or temps. The ratio of nonregular workers in Japan now stands at 40 percent, he said — a situation that’s discouraging young people from marrying and having children in a country with a shrinking population and tax base.

Opposition leaders also criticized the Abe administration’s move to reinterpret the pacifist Constitution in July, effectively lifting the country’s self-imposed Article 9 ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense.

“The Abe administration forcefully proceeded with (those issues) without listening to the voices of the public,” Kaieda said.

In the election, voters will decide whether “we continue with this forceful politics for the next four years or change its direction,” he added.

Asked by a reporter about the LDP’s controversial letter asking TV networks to ensure neutrality in their reporting on the 12-day campaign period, Abe merely said it was legal.

“Under the broadcasting law, Japan has a fairness doctrine, which is very different from the U.S.,” he said.

Given that TV news coverage can influence public opinion, a TV station can disgrace a political party if it wants to do so, Abe argued. But the LDP letter won’t pose any threat to TV stations that are maintaining neutrality in line with the doctrine, he said.

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