Voters in Japan went to the polls on Sunday in an election likely to return conservatives to power at a time of growing tension with China and as the nation seeks to arrest economic decline.
Polls point to a heavy defeat for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government, but observers say the electorate will hand the reins of power only reluctantly to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Hawkish one-time premier Shinzo Abe appeared set for a return to office, after a campaign in which he has sketched out a harder line on foreign policy, as tensions rise with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Polls opened early on Sunday and exit polls from broadcasters will be released shortly after the ballot boxes are sealed at 8.00pm.
Abe, whose brief stint as premier in 2006-7 ended ignominiously, has pledged to right Japan’s listless economy, which has suffered years of deflation, made worse by a soaring currency that has squeezed exporters.
“With stronger monetary policies, fiscal policies and growth policies, we will end deflation, correct a high yen, and grow the economy,” said Abe on Saturday.
“It’s time to put an end to the confusion and doldrums of three years and three months,” Abe said, referring to the stint in power of Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan.
“We’ve got to take a fresh step forward. Please join us for the fight,” added the former premier, whose party ruled Japan almost continuously for more than five decades until it was ousted by the DPJ.
He has also pledged to boost spending on infrastructure projects at a time when large parts of the tsunami-ravaged northeast have yet to see significant rebuilding following the catastrophe in March last year .
The collapse of an ageing highway tunnel that claimed nine lives earlier this month lent credence to his calls, which have been criticised by opponents as a return to the LDP’s “construction state” of the last century.
Public unease about a deteriorating security environment – North Korea launched a rocket over Japan’s southern islands last week and China sent a plane into Japanese airspace – has bolstered Abe’s cause.
He has promised to boost defences and revitalise a security alliance with the United States that is widely thought to have drifted under Noda’s party.
“It is an urgent task to rebuild the Japan-US alliance as unshakable and achieve peace and stability in Asia,” Abe’s LDP said in a statement issued ahead of the Sunday vote.
The DPJ disappointed voters who handed it a hefty majority in 2009 polls. Policy missteps, diplomatic gaffes and vicious factional infighting saw it burn through three premiers in as many years and squander its electoral hand.
A plodding and sometimes confused response to the disaster at Fukushima where nuclear reactors went into meltdown after the tsunami last year did it no favours either.
“Let us have another try... a lot of promises have yet to be fulfilled,” Noda was quoted as saying in newspaper adverts published on Sunday.
Opinion polls show that despite a strong anti-nuclear feeling in Japan, an array of smaller parties promising an atomic exit may struggle to get much traction.
But commentators say there is little enthusiasm for any party, and the LDP’s likely victory will come from their perceived status as the least-worst option.