Voting under way for Japan upper house race

Voting began Sunday in Japan's upper house election, the first national poll since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December, with the greatest focus on whether voters support his "Abenomics" policies to boost the Japanese economy.

A total of 433 candidates are running for 121 seats in the House of Councillors, where the ruling coalition led by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party has not had a majority. Wresting control of the 242-seat chamber is a key hurdle to be cleared if Abe is to pursue his policy goals, including revising the nation's pacifist Constitution.

The 17-day official campaign period ended Saturday as opposition parties struggled to erode strong support for the Abe administration. Among other issues, they have criticized Abe for plans to raise the sales tax and restart idled nuclear power plants, and for Japan's deteriorating relations with China and South Korea.

Half of the upper house seats come up for election every three years. Abe lost a majority for the ruling camp in the chamber in 2007 during his previous stint as prime minister.

Of the contested 121 seats, 73 will be filled by the winners from 47 prefectural electoral districts and the remaining 48 by those chosen under the nationwide party-list proportional representation system. The outcome of the election will likely become clear by early Monday.

The ruling coalition of the LDP and the New Komeito party needs at least 63 seats to secure a majority, in addition to the 59 they already hold that are not contested this time.

Abe recently referred to a higher goal of winning 70 seats, which would enable the coalition to control all standing committees as well as the chamber. That would facilitate the passage of bills, given the ruling bloc already holds an overwhelming majority in the more powerful House of Representatives.

Winning a majority in the upper house and ending the divided Diet would consolidate the LDP's comeback to power in last December's general election after three years in opposition by trouncing the Democratic Party of Japan. In this election, the DPJ has fought really to preserve its position as the largest opposition party.

Smaller opposition parties have pitched their policies under such themes as seeking deeper economic reforms than Abe's growth strategy, eliminating nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima crisis, and shelving the government's plan to increase the consumption tax rate from next April.

Abe became prime minister for the second time after the December general election, making economic recovery his top priority. He quickly introduced a series of policies dubbed "Abenomics," aimed at ending nearly two decades of deflation by sparking mild inflation.

The premier has also displayed a determination to revise the country's war-renouncing Constitution to allow Japan to play a greater security role in Asia.

The widely perceived shift to the right in Japanese politics under Abe's leadership has made some neighboring countries nervous, most notably China and South Korea, which suffered from Japan's militarism during World War II.