Voters in Japan are casting ballots in a general election seen as a test for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his long-ruling conservative party, which has been battered by its perceived mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Up for grabs in Sunday’s vote are 465 seats in the lower house, the more powerful of the two-chamber Japanese Diet, or parliament.
Kishida, who replaced the unpopular Yoshihide Suga, called the election soon after taking the top post earlier this month.
The 64-year-old has pledged to issue a fresh stimulus package worth tens of trillions of yen to counter the effect of the pandemic and promised to distribute wealth more fairly under a so-called “new capitalism”.
But with his lacklustre image failing to inspire voters, the LDP is on the brink of losing its sole majority in the lower house of parliament for the first time since 2009, according to opinion polls.
Still, the LDP is forecast to remain in control with support from its junior partner Komeito.
The campaign has largely centred on COVID-19 response measures and revitalising the economy, and many voters in Tokyo said that the virus crisis was an important factor in their decision.
“The economy is suffering because of the coronavirus, so I compared the politicians’ responses,” said Chihiro Sato, 38, a housewife and mother of a toddler.
Teruyo Kaneko, a 76-year-old retiree, said she was “focused on virus policies, and also wanted to say something to the long-running government about its arbitrary way of decision-making”.
But engineer Hiroyasu Onishi, 79, said he was more concerned by “the military threat from China”.
Turnout will be crucial since higher turnout tends to favour the opposition. As of 10 am, three hours after polls opened, turnout stood at 6.32 per cent, down 0.83 points from the previous lower house poll – but 16.6 million voted in advance, the internal affairs ministry said.
The biggest opposition group, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), which has formed a united front with four other parties, is expected to gain seats but not come near toppling Kishida’s coalition.
But even if the LDP wins, a poor showing could lead to party infighting, returning Japan to an era of short-lived administrations that diminished its global stature, until Shinzo Abe helmed the country for a record eight years to September 2020.
The dovish Komeito could also gain more clout within the coalition.
Uncertainty is high, with the Nikkei newspaper estimating 40 per cent of single-seat districts have close races and recent polls showing some 40 per cent of voters undecided.
“Revolving-door prime ministers is a weakness that many outside of Japan fear,” Sheila A Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog post.
“Prime Minister Kishida will need a unified party and a strong electoral showing on Oct. 31 if he is to successfully tackle Japan’s difficult national agenda.”
Several key LDP legislators are among those facing particularly tough contests, including Akira Amari, the party’s secretary-general.
Voting ends at 8 pm (11:00 GMT), with projected results likely to come soon afterwards from media exit polls.