Japan voters ready unenthusiastic yes to PM Abe

Tokyo (AFP) - Japan will hold a general election this weekend that looks likely to return Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to power and might even give him the momentum to press ahead with badly-needed structural changes.

Billed by the premier as a referendum on "Abenomics" -- his signature plan to fix the economy -- observers expect he will barely break a sweat in an easy victory.

Opinion polls predict the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner Komeito will sweep Sunday's ballot, all but unhindered by an unprepared and underwhelming opposition.

"Abe's expected victory is the result of the self-destruction of the opposition," said Shinichi Nishikawa, professor of politics at Meiji University in Tokyo.

"For many voters, there is no alternative but the LDP," Nishikawa said.

According to a poll published by the Asahi Shimbun on Thursday, the coalition will secure 317 of the 475 seats, giving them the super-majority they need in the powerful lower house to force through legislation.

The DPJ, whose haphazard governance over the three years until 2012 left voters cold, could add a couple of dozen more seats to its tally of 62, but will remain ineffective, the opinion poll showed.

Sixty-year-old Abe still had more than two years left on the clock when he called the vote last month.

His two years in power have been characterised by a bid to reinvigorate Japan's sagging economy with what he has called the "three arrows" of Abenomics -- monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural changes.

The first two arrows have largely hit their target -- the once-painfully high yen has plunged, sending stocks higher.

Prices have begun rising after years of standing still, proof, say Abe's boosters that this is the beginning of a virtuous circle of economic growth, with higher wages soon to follow.

But the reform arrow remains in the quiver; critics say Abe has not been bold enough to take on the vested interests that are the real key to reversing nearly two decades of economic underperformance.

"A victory by the LDP will be regarded as a positive factor for the Japanese economy in the short term," said Takahiro Sekido, Japan economist at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ.

"But painful reforms are still ahead, including efforts to achieve sound public finance" and handle strong opposition from farm lobbies that have stalled talks on a huge Pacific-wide free trade deal, Sekido said.

- 'Goldilocks victory best outcome' -

A new mandate from the electorate would give Abe a straight four years' run at some of the more difficult reforms.

But if voters hand him too much of a majority, Abe might take his eye off the economic ball and press his less-popular pet projects, says James Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

While relations with China are finally starting to thaw -- Abe met President Xi Jinping last month for the first time -- his nationalist instincts, including a visit to a war shrine and equivocations on Japan's wartime record of enslaving women for sex, unsettle the region.

The best outcome would be a "Goldilocks victory by the LDP," said Schoff, referring to a parliamentary majority that was not too big and not too small.

That kind of win would buy him "some extra time to move forward on the tougher economic forums that will be talked about, to be able to make a deal on (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), to go toe-to-toe with the farm lobby and maybe allow some multinational or big Japanese corporations to invest in agricultural production.

"If Abe wins too big, he could actually get distracted, I think, by some other constitutional reforms and other bigger historical things that he wants to do...(which) could rile up the region, slow Japan down," said Schoff.

With only days to go, candidates wearing white gloves and sashes emblazoned with their names are putting in the hours at train stations, greeting voters and repeating their names through megaphones.

But even in a country used to unspectacular politics, harried salarymen appear more uninterested than usual.

Only two-thirds of voters expressed any interest in the vote, a poll found, down from 80 percent in December 2012.

"This is an election with no wind as non-partisan voters can't find where to go," said Koji Nakakita, a politics professor at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University.

"It's going to be a victory for the LDP without enthusiasm."