Less than a quarter of eligible voters had cast ballots as of 2 p.m. on Sunday, reflecting an apparent lack of public interest in the snap Lower House election.
Voting stations opened across the country early Sunday morning, for an election that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touted as a referendum on his “Abenomics” economic policies.
By 2 p.m., voter turnout had reached 22.66 percent — some 4.74 percentage points lower than in the previous Lower House election in December 2012 — the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said.
Pre-election media polls have pointed to a clear victory for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, since opposition parties have struggled to convince voters they are credible alternatives to the LDP-Komeito coalition that controlled both houses of the Diet prior to the election.
An LDP victory would enable the prime minister to persist with Abenomics — a combination of aggressive monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and growth-oriented strategies — to boost the deflation-mired economy and prepare for a second hike in the consumption tax to 10 percent from 8 percent in 2017.
Other policy issues that are of concern to voters include whether Japan should restart its nuclear power plants, as all 48 remain offline in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Another is Abe’s intention to rework Japan’s security arrangements after his Cabinet decided this year to reinterpret the Constitution to enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense.
One major focus will be the number of seats that the LDP and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, are able to win. The voter turnout rate, which hit a postwar low of 59.3 percent in the 2012 race, will also be closely watched.
Before the House of Representatives was dissolved on Nov. 21, the ruling coalition held a combined 326 seats — 295 by the LDP and 31 by Komeito — in the 480-member Lower House.
A total of 1,191 candidates are vying for 475 seats — 295 for single-seat districts and 180 for proportional representation districts — up for grabs on Sunday. The number of seats in the Lower House was reduced by five due to recent election reform.
The largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, has struggled to win back support from voters disgruntled with its performance as the ruling party between 2009 and 2012, and especially after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima triple meltdown.
To counter the LDP’s dominance, the DPJ, the Japan Innovation Party and other opposition parties collaborated to some extent during the campaign for Sunday’s election. They opted not to field separate candidates in 194 districts in a bid to avoid diluting their electoral appeal and to improve the chances of more opposition candidates winning seats.
By early Monday, all 475 winners are expected to be determined after polling stations close at 8 p.m. Sunday.
Abe called the snap election late last month after data showed the economy had fallen back into recession, after the consumption tax was raised on April 1 to 8 percent from 5 percent. The discouraging economic data prompted Abe to postpone a further hike to 10 percent, which had been planned for October 2015.
Abe also opted to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election, arguing that he was seeking a fresh mandate or his economic policies.
He has said that Abenomics is “the only way” for Japan to overcome deflation. Signs of economic recovery have emerged since 2012, the prime minister said, crediting his policy mix with helping to weaken the yen, boost share prices and a pick-up in employment.
However, the LDP has admitted that Japanese living in rural areas — the party’s major support bases — have yet to feel the benefits and has pledged to work for them after the election.
Opposition parties have taken aim at the downsides of Abe’s reflationary policies, which have led to a widening wealth gap. The yen’s decline has triggered big increases in energy prices and the costs of imported goods, hurting midsize and small companies as well as households.
During the campaign, which officially kicked off on Dec. 2, Abe did not go into much detail about nuclear policy or the right to collective self-defense. Opposition parties sought to focus attention on those issues to thwart Abe’s attempt to make the election solely about the economy.