Japanese voters headed to the polls today to cast their ballot in a parliamentary election with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party expected to cruise to victory despite lukewarm support.
Abe, in power since late 2012, has yet to achieve a strong recovery in the world's third-largest economy nor his cherished goal of removing a war-renouncing clause from Japan's US-imposed constitution.
But voters, despite misgivings, appear willing to boost his party and its conservative allies, due mostly to a lack of faith in the opposition.
Today's vote is for half the seats in the House of Councillors -- the less powerful upper house of parliament -- and polling stations across the country opened at 7:00 am (2200 GMT Saturday).
The vote outcome is expected to become clear shortly after the polls close at 8:00 pm.
Having been largely written off after a failed 2006-2007 stint as prime minister, Abe got a rare second chance when a left-leaning government collapsed in late 2012.
He promised to end debilitating deflation through massive easy money and other steps -- so-called Abenomics -- while beefing up Japan's defence, promoting conservative values and vowing to revise the constitution.
Initial results were favourable with stocks soaring and businesses reaping record profits as the yen fell, making Japanese companies more competitive.
But the world's third-largest economy has since lurched from growth to contraction, with weak consumer inflation still weighing on sentiment.
Voters backing Abe due to lack of alternatives
In a poll last week, 41 per cent said they disapproved of Abe's economic policies, but support his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a less-than-resounding 37 per cent, far outpaced 11 per cent for the main opposition Democratic Party.
"As in past elections, voters are likely to passively endorse the Abe administration due to a lack of alternatives," said Koji Nakakita, professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.
A wildcard this time is that Japan's voting age has been lowered from 20 to 18 to encourage young people to take part in politics but how they will vote, and in what numbers, remains to be seen.
Abe is hoping that the coalition and a loose group of hawkish conservatives from smaller parties can grab a two-thirds majority in the upper house, giving him the strength to start amending the constitution.
The document, which renounces Japan's right to wage war, is deplored by nationalists as a relic from Japan's World War II defeat.
Still, many Japanese staunchly embrace its pacifist ideal.
But any legislation that mustered the two-thirds majorities needed to pass both houses would face another hurdle in the form of a national referendum.
Things to know: Japan's upper house election
The House of Councillors, as it is formally known, is the smaller and less powerful side of Japan's bicameral legislature, or Diet.
Its 242 members serve six-year terms, with elections every three years for half the seats.
The body is designed for careful deliberation, somewhat similar to the US Senate, but lacks the power and prestige.
Most legislation must pass it to become law, however its decisions can be overturned by the House of Representatives, the lower chamber, though that rarely happens.
Japanese citizens over the age of 30 can run. Upper house elections tend to attract candidates with national fame, such as television personalities and athletes, regardless of their political experience and policy chops.
For the first time, anyone over the age of 18 can vote. Previously the voting age was 20.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a member of the lower house, is not up for election. But voters will consider his steerage of the economy, which has yet to result in as robust a recovery as promised.
His ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and other conservatives are aiming to gain enough seats to control two-thirds of the upper house, part of their controversial goal to amend Japan's war-renouncing constitution.
- What is the likely result?
The jury remains out on the prime minister's unconventional "Abenomics" economic policies in place for over 3 1/2 years, while many voters appear wary of revising the pacifist constitution.
But burned by an unpopular 2009-2012 left-leaning government, voters are likely to stick to the status quo, with surveys pointing to Abe and his allies cruising to victory.
Voters have in the past, however, used upper house elections to punish the ruling party. In 1998, then prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned when the LDP fared poorly after a consumption tax increase delivered a body blow to the economy.
Abe is highly likely to avoid such a fate as he recently announced a delay in a planned tax increase.