Voters cast their ballots in upper house elections Sunday in Japan as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition was expected to win an overwhelming victory in the House of Councillors thanks to a less unified opposition camp.
Polling stations opened at 7 am (2200 GMT Saturday) all over the country for tens of millions of voters who will elect 121 upper house lawmakers.
All eyes were on Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), its junior coalition partner Komeito and like-minded parties to see whether they would gain a two-thirds majority in the upper chamber of parliament.
Abe would need the support of two-thirds of both chambers of parliament in order to call a national referendum on amending the constitution. The coalition already holds a majority in the House of Representatives, the more powerful lower house.
Abe's ruling coalition is likely to surpass the premier's target of 61 of the 121 seats up for grabs, major polls showed, despite his government's failure to revitalize long-term economic growth.
The world's third-largest economy contracted twice in the past year amid weak consumption especially after a sales tax hike to 8 per cent in April 2014 from 5 per cent.
In early June, Abe decided to postpone a second sales tax increase to 10 per cent planned for April 2017 amid sluggish consumer spending. The hike to 10 per cent from 8 per cent, which was originally set for October 2015, was put off until October 2019.
"Abenomics has by no means failed," the premier told a crowd in Tokyo Saturday, referring to his economic policies based on fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. "We must rebuild our economy."
The main opposition Democratic Party is expected to win 30 seats, far below its 43 contested seats, according to a recent survey conducted by the major daily newspaper Asahi.
The party was formed in March through the merger of the Democratic Party of Japan and Japan Innovation Party.
"The Democratic Party has been further fragmented since the party leader [Katsuya] Okada decided to forge an electoral alliance with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP)," said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst.
The Communist Party has been drawing voters frustrated with Abe's government and it's likely to gain more seats.
The Japanese economy has entered an "Abenomics recession," declared JCP leader Kazuo Shii in Yokohama Saturday. "Let us correct disparities and eliminate poverty."
Every three years Japan's upper house holds elections for half of its 242 seats. This year a total of 389 candidates are running for the 121 seats.
Of the 106.6 million registered voters in Japan, about 13.2 million people cast their ballot in early polls before Friday, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
Vote-counting work will start immediately after the polling booths close at 8 pm.
It will be the first national elections in Japan in which about 2.4 million people aged 18 and 19 are able to vote, after an electoral law amendment recently reduced the minimum voting age from 20.
Analysts said, however, young people seldom discuss politics and social issues due to the education system, which emphasizes rote memorization for exams instead of encouraging students to express themselves.
"Unfortunately, not many young people go to the polls," said Takao Toshikawa, founder and editor-in-chief of Insideline, a bi-weekly publication in Tokyo.