PM Abe set for win in Japan poll

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inspects Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel Ishigaki.

TOKYO - After six years of political turmoil and a slew of short-term prime ministers, Japan looks set for stability if premier Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc wins this weekend's election, analysts say.

But the question is whether Abe will continue his programme of economic reforms, or revert to nationalist type and risk a further fraying of relations with China.

"We need political stability to carry out policies," Abe told reporters.

"We will get that political stability by winning the upper house election."

Voters nationwide will Sunday elect half of the 242-seat upper house of parliament.

Opinion polls show Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition ally will win more than half the seats up for grabs.

That would give the 58-year-old premier control of both chambers, removing electoral obstacles until the next national poll three years hence.

Stability like that has not been seen in Japan since before Abe's first stint as prime minister to September 2007.

Then, 12 months in office were characterised by division and capped with his resignation after a heavy electoral defeat.

In the intervening years, Japan's already sclerotic politics ossified as a succession of weak prime minsters came and went, undone by party infighting and factionalism.

But since a triumphant return to the top job in December, an invigorated Abe has delighted the country, offering hope he may go the distance.

"The Abe administration can become a long-run regime," said Koji Nakakita, professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. "It even has the potential to go beyond the next three years."

Abe has enjoyed high public support thanks to a slew of economic measures - dubbed "Abenomics" - intended to stimulate Japan's deflation-plagued economy.

The first two of the three "arrows" he has outlined - huge government spending and a flood of easy money - have been fired, sending the yen tumbling and pushing Tokyo stocks to multi-year highs.

The third arrow is trickier but is intended, the government says, to "revive private sector vigour".

An ill-defined wish list includes corporate tax cuts, special business zones, more women in the workplace and Japan's participation in a Pacific-wide free trade pact.

But awakening the economy after two decades of slumber is a tall order, compounded by the need to address levels of debt already over twice the GDP.

An early step is a pledged hike in the five per cent consumption tax to eight per cent next April and to 10 per cent in 2015.

While that might help rebalance national books, observers warn it also risks dampening consumer spending.

"It is quite a high hurdle" to maintain a recovery and limit the impact of the tax hike, said Hideo Kumano, executive chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo.

"Optimism and pessimism are mixed for the fate of Abenomics," Kumano said.

Political stability may also help Japan resume dialogue with China and South Korea, both at odds with Tokyo over territorial disputes.

"The expected outcome of the election will be a good message to China and South Korea, saying Japan is now stable enough to sit down and talk," said Shinichi Nishikawa, political professor at Meiji University in Tokyo.

But far from proving a balm, some pundits predict renewed political clout will mean Abe picking up pet projects bound to irritate Beijing and Seoul, like bolstering the armed forces or softening Japan's committment to pacifism.

"The centrepiece of his policy is not Abenomics but revision of the constitution," said Nakakita. "It would not be surprising if he gets to work on the constitution issue soon after the election."