Japan's Abe in box seat as campaigning wraps up

Richard CARTER, Hiroshi HIYAMA
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears poised to secure a fresh term at the helm of the world's third-biggest economy

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Saturday vowed to step up pressure on North Korea to protect the Japanese people as he wrapped up an election campaign dominated by threats from Pyongyang.

Polls show Abe and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are clear favourites to win Sunday's election, handing him a fresh mandate for his hardline stance on North Korea and "Abenomics" growth strategy.

Abe's coalition is on track to win around 300 seats in the 465-seat lower house of parliament, according to a projection published by the Nikkei daily.

If the polls are correct, 63-year-old Abe is on course to be the longest-serving premier in post-war Japan, the world's third-biggest economy and key US ally in Asia.

In a final and passionate campaign speech at Tokyo's Akihabara shopping district, Abe pledged to apply so much pressure on North Korea that the regime would change its ways and ask for negotiations.

"What is needed is strong diplomacy," said Abe, vowing to work with both US President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin to achieve his goal.

He cried: "We must not yield to the threat of North Korea" which has threatened to "sink" Japan into the sea and fired two missiles over the country.

"We are the ones who can defend people's lives, protect our happy way of life, and open the future for our children and our nation," he pledged, referring to his LDP party.

Throughout the short 12-day campaign, the premier has railed against Pyongyang, keeping a hawkish stance and backing the US line that "all options" are on the table.

Abe enjoys only lukewarm public support but the weak and fragmented opposition has been unable to make inroads into his poll lead.

The two main opposition parties -- the "Party of Hope" created by the media-savvy Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and the new centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party -- are trailing far behind, predicted to win around 50 seats each.

- 'Koike's gambit' -

Aside from North Korea, many voters regard the economy and reforming the costly social security system as their priority concerns, as Abe has struggled to revive the once world-beating Japanese economy after five years in power.

Abe says his trademark "Abenomics" strategy of ultra-loose monetary policy and big fiscal spending is the best way to pep up the economy, which is weighed down by debt and struggling with deflation.

He has also pledged to use part of the proceeds from a planned sales tax hike to fund free childcare in a bid to get more women into the workplace.

Koike wants to scrap the tax hike, arguing it would throttle a recovery that has seen Japan's longest stretch of growth in a decade.

In a last-ditch appeal to voters, Koike urged voters to help build an opposition force big enough to serve as a counterweight to the powerful Abe.

"Look at consumer spending. You cannot say Abenomics has borne its fruits," Koike said

"This election started in a chaotic rush and it is already coming to an end," she said. "If things stay the same, you will have to accept an unchecked Abe regime."

Koike enjoyed a blaze of publicity when launching her new "Party of Hope", but the bubble appears to have burst for the popular 65-year-old former newscaster, partly because she declined to run herself for prime minister.

"Every party has to have, to be credible, a candidate for prime minister and she would have been it but then she walked away and it is a ship that suddenly has no captain," Michael Cucek from Temple University told AFP.

Another brand-new party, the centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party, appears to have some momentum going into the poll and could do better than expected.

With little suspense over the overall outcome, the main tension is over whether Abe and his junior coalition partner Komeito will retain their two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament.

This is significant because it would enable Abe to propose changes to the US-imposed Constitution, which effectively limits the military to a self-defence role and forces Japan to "renounce war".

One less predictable factor in the election is the weather as a typhoon spirals towards Japan, expected to dump heavy rains on most of the country on polling day.

This could weigh on turnout, with a lower participation rate seen as beneficial for Abe, whose supporters are more committed.