• Kyodo, Staff Report

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Members of the nation’s major political parties kicked off their official House of Councilors election campaigns Wednesday, with the ruling bloc and a united opposition giving speeches centered on the economy around the country.

Half of the 242 seats in the Upper House of the bicameral parliament are up for grabs in the July 10 election.

225 people had registered to run in constituencies and 164 through the proportional representation system as of midday Wednesday, for a total of 389 declared candidates.

The election will be the first national race in which 18- and 19-year-olds are able to vote after an electoral law amendment lowering the minimum age from 20 took effect Sunday.

About 2.4 million young people are newly eligible to vote. It was the first such change to election rules since 1946, when women gained suffrage and the voting age was lowered from 25.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner Komeito aim not just to maintain their majority in the chamber, but to together win at least half of the contested seats, which would be taken as signifying voters’ continued faith in Abe.

The prime minister recently postponed for a second time a planned increase in the national sales tax because of the economy’s fragility, a move some speculate was politically driven.

Speaking in Kumamoto Prefecture, which is still recovering from April’s destructive earthquakes, Abe called the economy “this election’s biggest theme.”

“(We have achieved) the highest wages since the turn of the century. We will firmly push Abenomics forward,” Abe said.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, campaigning in Saitama Prefecture, pledged to “properly share the fruits of increased tax revenue with those people who aren’t yet benefiting from Abenomics.”

In a recent Kyodo News poll, 62.2 percent of respondents expressed doubts about Abenomics’ effectiveness, while only 28 percent voiced confidence the policies will boost the economy.

Support for the Abe Cabinet stood at 47.8 percent in a nationwide telephone survey conducted June 12 to 13, down 1.6 percentage points from the previous poll at the start of the month. The disapproval rating was 43.5 percent, up 2.2 points.

The main opposition Democratic Party has looked past its policy differences with smaller opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party, to throw its weight behind united candidates in all 32 contested single-member electoral districts.

“Real economic policy means balancing growth with the distribution (of wealth),” Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada said Wednesday, kicking off his campaign in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture.

“Abenomics seeks only to make the economy bigger — it’s the wrong path,” Okada said.

The Democratic Party was formed in March through the merger of the Democratic Party of Japan — which ruled from 2009 to 2012, briefly breaking the LDP’s near constant post-World War II hold on the Diet — and the smaller Japan Innovation Party.

Although manifestos of the parties on both sides start with economic policy, the opposition is also going after the Abe administration’s security policies and the LDP’s long-standing ambition to reform the pacifist Constitution.

The Democratic Party and its allies have pledged to scrap controversial security legislation enabling the country’s Self-Defense Forces to assist allies in overseas conflicts, and to protect Article 9 of the Constitution, under which Japan forever renounces war and the maintenance of a military.

To call a national plebiscite on altering the Constitution, Abe would need the support of two-thirds of both houses of the Diet.

The ruling parties currently have such a majority in the Lower House, and hope to clear, with the cooperation of some smaller parties, the two-thirds mark in the Upper House as well. The LDP-led coalition will reach that crucial junction if, together with parties in favor of the constitutional amendment, win a total of 78 seats.

JCP leader Kazuo Shii vowed in Tokyo on Wednesday to “take back constitutionalism,” while Social Democratic Party leader Tadatomo Yoshida called the election a fight to protect the Constitution and “put a stop to the runaway Abe government.”

In his speech in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga contended that the Upper House election is a battle between the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition and the opposition bloc led by the Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party.

“The platform of the Communist Party says the Japan-U.S. security treaty should be abolished and the Self-Defence Forces should be disbanded,” Suga pointed out.

“You cannot leave (the management of) this country to people like this,” he argued.

People’s Life Party co-leader Taro Yamamoto called on voters in Tokyo to “remedy the injustice” brought about by Abenomics, citing widening disparities in living standards.

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui pledged Wednesday to avoid raising the sales tax altogether through the implementation of alternative fiscal reforms he said were tried and tested in western Japan’s commercial center.

“If we apply the little things we’ve done in Osaka to the whole country, there will be no need to raise the tax,” said Matsui.

In the last Upper House race in July 2013, the LDP and Komeito regained control of the chamber by promising to cure the nation’s generation-long deflation malaise and put the economy back on a sustainable growth track.

By the time Abe dissolved the Lower House in its last election in late 2014, Abenomics and the fervor surrounding it had been credited with a fledgling inflation trend, higher wages and a stock market boom.

But a different world greets voters this summer. Fears of a global slowdown led by China and other emerging economies have rocked equity and commodity markets and stoked demand for the yen, threatening the earnings of Japanese exporters.

Under another recent amendment, electoral district boundaries have been redrawn to address a wide disparity in the weight of votes between constituencies, which led the Supreme Court to label the last Upper House race to have been “in a state of unconstitutionality.”

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