TOKYO (AP) — Japanese voters headed to the polls Sunday in a parliamentary election that is expected to reaffirm the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's majority, though many analysts were predicting a record low turnout.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called Sunday's snap election for the lower house, saying he wanted a fresh mandate for his economic program and other policies. Abe said he will step down if the Liberal Democrats fail to obtain an outright majority, but weakness among opposition parties makes that unlikely.
Abe took office two years ago promising to revive the stagnant economy and restore Japan's fading stature. Since then, share prices have risen and many companies have reported record profits as the Japanese yen has weakened in value, thanks to aggressive monetary easing.
But the economic recovery that began before Abe took office has faltered in recent months, with the country returning to recession after a sales tax hike chilled demand among consumers and businesses.
A landslide victory in this election could improve Abe's chances of pushing ahead with ambitious political and economic reforms, with or without the Liberal Democrats' coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed Komei Party.
"This is the only way!" is the slogan Abe has driven home in his campaign speeches, and for voters this is likely to be true.
Despite sliding popularity ratings, the recession and messy campaign finance scandals, Abe is virtually the only game in town thanks to Japan's tendency toward a one-party political system, voter apathy and a lack of viable alternatives.
Polls show that many voters, fed up with or indifferent to the choices on offer, support no party in particular, so Abe's Liberal Democratic Party may win by default.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan was in power for three years from 2009 to 2012, but lost voters' confidence amid perceptions of ineptitude after failing to deliver on campaign pledges and struggling to guide the country after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.
Heavy snow in northern Japan - the top news Sunday morning - could also adversely affect turnout. In Tokyo, with temperatures near freezing, few voters were seen at several polling stations.
Abe, making a final campaign appearance among dozens over the past two weeks, accused the Democratic Party of being too pessimistic about the country's future, due to an aging and shrinking population that has slowed the economy.
"If we create a country where everyone is given a chance, Japan will grow much bigger," Abe said. "We are finished if we give up."
The head of the Democratic Party, Banri Kaeda, urged people to go to the polls, saying that "Not voting will not help, either."
"When you go to vote, please think about whether you want to support the idea of having Mr. Abe rule for the next four years," he said.
A strong win for Abe's ruling coalition could empower Abe to pursuing ambitious economic reforms that have so far made scant progress, despite an aggressive monetary easing that has driven the value of the Japanese yen lower and pushed prices somewhat higher.
Such a victory would also facilitate his efforts to revise the constitution and pursue other nationalist policies. Abe's longstanding efforts toward those goals, which include the successful passage of a state secrets act and efforts to expand the scope of Japan's military activities have already roiled relations with China.