TOKYO (AP) — Hundreds of candidates fanned out across Japan on Tuesday, the first official day of campaigning for a national election that could give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a mandate for four more years.
Abe launched his party's campaign on Tuesday in Soma, a town close to the tsunami-struck Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. He pledged to make progress in recovering from the March 2011 tsunami and in restoring the economy.
"I promise you that we will once again see this region and all of Japan become the center of the world and shine," he said, wearing a puffy white overcoat on a blustery, sunny day. "Please give us the strength."
The leader of the largest opposition party, Banri Kaieda of the Democratic Party of Japan, asked if people were better off two years after Abe took office in December 2012.
"This election was launched to hide the failure of Abenomics," he said in Iwaki, another town near the Fukushima plant. "It has been two years now since Abe put forth his economic policy. In these two years, has it really helped the people's lives? This is the question that needs to be reflected upon when voting."
Abe dissolved the lower house of parliament on Nov. 20, forcing a snap poll on Dec. 14.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
The lower house, formally known as the House of Representatives, is the more powerful of the two branches of Japan's parliament. It has the final say in picking a prime minister and most legislation. The lower house had 480 members, but is being reduced to 475 in the upcoming election.
WHY DOES IT MATTER
Following a series of campaign finance scandals in his Cabinet, Abe is trying to stem a slide in his support while his government remains relatively popular and the opposition is in disarray. If his party wins, he won't have to call an election for four years. That could pave the way for him to pursue his goals: reforming the economy, expanding the military's role, restarting nuclear power plants and laying the groundwork for revising the constitution.
BUSY TIME OF YEAR
The election comes at a busy time, with end-of-year parties and individual and company gift-buying. Polls show that many voters don't see the need for an election, so turnout could be low, particularly in big cities. Community events have been canceled nationwide, and Japan's national broadcaster, NHK, has put off the final episode of a prime-time drama. A 28-year-old election official in Tokyo reportedly canceled his wedding.
WHO'S GOING TO WIN
Abe's ruling coalition is expected to retain a majority, though it could lose a chunk of seats. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party held 295 seats, and its coalition partner Komeito another 31, giving the coalition an overwhelming majority of 326 of the 480 seats in the recently dissolved lower house. Polls put the Liberal Democrats well in the lead, though many voters say they are still undecided.