By Kiyoshi Takenaka
FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, riding high in opinion polls on hopes he can revive a stagnant economy, urged voters on Thursday to back his ruling bloc in this month's upper house election and end a six-year policy deadlock.
Abe, back in power after his Liberal Democratic Party's big win in a December election for the powerful lower house, is expected to lead his coalition to a hefty victory in the July 21 poll, resolving a "twisted parliament" where opposition parties control the upper house and are able to block bills.
He officially kicked off the campaign on Thursday in Fukushima in Japan's northeast, which was devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"Because of a twisted parliament, rebuilding has not progressed speedily, revitalization of the economy has not progressed speedily," Abe told a crowd of about 1,000 people near a train station in Fukushima city.
Japan has suffered parliamentary gridlock ever since Abe led the LDP to a massive defeat in a 2007 upper house vote. He quit abruptly two months later due to the deadlock, plummeting support and ill health. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) faced a similar headache after sweeping to power in 2009, only to lose a 2010 upper house election.
Public support for Abe and the LDP now far outstrips any rivals, buoyed by hopes that his recipe of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and structural reform to boost growth can end Japan's prolonged stagnation.
An opinion poll by the Tokyo Shimbun published on Tuesday showed that 28 percent of respondents planned to vote for the LDP in districts where members are decided by proportional representation, dwarfing the 5.9 percent who intend to cast ballots for the DPJ.
Voter support for the LDP in general contrasts with public antipathy towards nuclear power after the Fukushima crisis, the world's worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl. A huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, caused reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima plant, spewing radiation and forcing 160,000 people to flee, many never to return home.
The LDP has pledged to seek the understanding of affected communities to restart offline reactors that are found to meet new safety standards that take effect on July 8.
"Unless we have a party in power that can get things done in power, things won't change," said a 65-year-old woman who lives in a Fukushima apartment reserved for disaster victims.
"I haven't actually felt the economic recovery affecting my life just yet. But I support 'Abenomics'. At least they took one step forward," she said, adding however that she also opposed the restart of nuclear reactors.
Abe, a deeply conservative hawk who wants to revise Japan's pacifist constitution to ease limits on the military, has vowed to maintain his priority on fixing the economy after the election. However, many wonder if he will shift gears to focus on his agenda that includes constitutional reform.
Stress on his conservative agenda, including efforts to recast Japan's war-time history with a less apologetic tone, would further strain relations with China and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan's past militarism run deep. Tokyo is already feuding with Beijing and Seoul over disputed islands.
Abe, in a debate with rivals on Wednesday, declined to say whether he would visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are enshrined with Japan's war dead. He also declined to be drawn on questions whether Japan had engaged in a war of aggression against China in the last century.
With a victory by the LDP and its junior partner, the New Komeito, widely expected, the focus will also be on whether the Liberal Democrats can win a majority on their own in the 242-seat chamber, where half the seats are up for grabs.
A massive win for the party could be a mixed blessing: it would give Abe a mandate but also bolster the ranks of MPs who may oppose painful reforms many say are needed to revive growth.
Whether the LDP-led coalition, together with smaller parties that favor revising the constitution, can win a two-thirds majority is another key question, although Abe has said he will not rush to attempt any constitutional changes given wary public opinion and a cautious stance by the more dovish New Komeito.
Abe wants first to revise Article 96 of the charter, which stipulates that any change in the constitution requires approval by two-thirds of both houses of parliament and a majority of votes cast in a public referendum.
He and the LDP want to change the parliamentary requirement to a simple majority in both houses before the public vote.
Abe's resignation in 2007 began a series of revolving-door leaders - Japan has had seven since Junichiro Koizumi served a rare five-year term ending in 2006. A win on July 21 could set the stage for the first stable, long-term administration since then. No national election needs to be held until 2016.
At the same time, an anticipated bashing for the Democratic Party, which surged to power in 2009 pledging to pry control of policymaking away from bureaucrats and pay more heed to consumers than companies, could call into question its future as well as hopes for a true two-party system in Japan.
(Additional reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto in Tokyo; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)