Campaigning kicks off for Japan elections

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to speed up disaster reconstruction Thursday as he kicked off the campaign for parliamentary elections during a visit to Fukushima.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, the New Komeito, are expected to gain a majority of the 242 seats in the less powerful upper house in the July 21 election. That would give them control of both houses of parliament, making it easier to pass legislation.

Abe, whose seat in the lower house is not being contested, said he needed voter support to overcome gridlock and speed up economic measures and reconstruction after the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disasters.

Abe, standing atop a campaign car, told a packed crowd that reconstruction from the disaster has lagged behind because a bogged down parliament — with the opposition controlling the upper house — has slowed down legislative procedures.

“Because of the twisted parliament, reconstruction projects don’t move forward, our economic recovery programs don’t progress in a speedy manner and reforms lag behind,” Abe said. “Please let us get out of the gridlock.”

Abe chose Fukushima apparently to showcase that its recovery from the nuclear crisis is his government’s top priority.

About 150,000 people remain displaced from subsequent meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

While in Fukushima, Abe never mentioned plans to restart nuclear power plants, a reversal from a phase-out plan set by the previous government following the nuclear disaster. Abe has been aggressively trying to export nuclear plants and technology to emerging countries.

Abe’s Cabinet has enjoyed relatively high approval ratings since taking office in December amid optimism over his “Abenomics” economic revival program, including massive monetary easing and public works spending, which has lifted stock prices, weakened the yen and boosted business confidence.

But there’s less confidence in his structural reform proposals, the so-called “third arrow” of his economic platform.

Recent media polls show that economic issues are dominating voter interest, while nuclear energy, diplomacy and security issues are attracting less interest.

Half the 242 seats in the upper house are up for grabs. The LDP, which ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era, and the New Komeito, together have 59 of the uncontested seats. They need to win 63 together to gain a majority of 122 in the chamber.

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