TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe largely deflected attacks on his management of the economy and other policies Monday as he faced off against leaders of six opposition parties in a debate on the eve of the start of official campaigning for this month's elections.
Instead of Abe's opponents successfully poking holes in his policies during the two-hour debate, the event turned into an Abe news conference, with questions posed by both the debate's participants and selected journalists largely for him.
Abe dissolved the lower house of parliament on Nov. 20 and called the snap polls, seeking a renewed public mandate for his economic policies. He's portraying the Dec. 14 elections as a referendum on his economic revitalization policies, known as Abenomics, and the postponement of a tax hike — from the current 8 percent to 10 percent — that had been set for next October.
The dissolution of the lower house is largely seen as an attempt by Abe to clean his Cabinet, which has faced a series of financial scandals since a September reshuffle, and prolong his rule for another four years.
Abe said during the debate that the economy and employment have improved since he took office two years ago and vowed to continue with Abenomics, despite criticism from most opposition leaders that the measures have largely benefited big businesses and ignored consumers.
"We are only halfway through, but this is the only way," Abe said.
Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for most of the post-World War II era, may lose some seats in the elections, but is likely to retain a solid majority with its coalition partner in the 475-seat lower house.
After a three-year rule by the main rival Democratic Party of Japan ended two years ago, the Japanese opposition has largely shrunk and divided into fringe groups. Some of the parties are starting to cooperate to win back seats from the ruling bloc's overwhelming majority, and are trying to focus on issues such as nuclear energy and defense.
But recent polls show voters are mainly interested in the economy and jobs, issues that Abe's party wants them to focus on.