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Voting got under way Sunday in a House of Councillors by-election in western Japan, with the race being closely watched as a prelude to the upper house election this summer, in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition is aiming to win a majority to gain control of both houses of parliament.
The by-election in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where Abe's constituency is located, is effectively a contest between Kiyoshi Ejima, a newcomer from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and former Justice Minister Hideo Hiraoka, backed by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
Two other candidates -- Naoko Fujii, 60, a former Shunan city assembly member of the Japanese Communist Party, and Miwako Kawai, a 50-year-old member of the Happiness Realization Party -- are also contesting the seat, which was left vacant when former upper house member Nobuo Kishi decided to run in last December's House of Representatives election.
Voting will close at 8 p.m. Sunday, with the likely winner determined later in the day.
Voters will be delivering the first verdict on the policies of the Abe government since its launch four months ago, including its economic policies centered on aggressive monetary easing and massive public spending to combat Japan's chronic deflation.
If the 56-year-old Ejima, who has also been endorsed by the LDP's ally the New Komeito party, wins the race, it will give the ruling coalition 84 seats in the 242-seat chamber, only one seat less than the DPJ-led alliance in the upper house.
The ruling coalition, which holds more than two-thirds of the 480 seats in the more powerful lower house, is also hoping to win the upper house election scheduled in July, when half the chamber's seats will be up for grabs. The prime minister has said he aims to create a stable government by gaining control of both houses of parliament.
The LDP returned to power through a landslide victory in the lower house election last December, ending the three-year rule of the DPJ.
The Abe government has enjoyed relatively high support ratings ranging from around 60 to 75 percent in various media polls since its launch, apparently reflecting high expectations of an economic turnaround.
Abe's decision to secure Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations is another issue in the by-election, along with the construction of a new nuclear power plant in the Yamaguchi prefectural town of Kaminoseki following the 2011 nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
Japan's participation in the U.S.-led talks involving 11 Pacific Rim countries has fueled concerns that Japanese farmers could be hurt by an influx of cheap agricultural products.
The LDP has waged an all-out battle to win the by-election, with Abe and senior party officials travelling to stump for the party's candidate.
The DPJ, plagued by the departure of members looking to run in this summer's upper house election, has strongly supported the 59-year-old Hiraoka, who is running as an independent.
Hiraoka also has the backing of the Green Wind party and the Social Democratic Party.
As of 4 p.m., voter turnout stood at 21.96 percent, down 16.34 percentage points from the same time in the upper house election in 2010, according to the prefectural election board.