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Japan election campaign kicks off; Abe pushes economic plan

TOKYO (AP) -- Campaigning for Japan's parliamentary election kicked off Wednesday, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party seeking a mandate for his economic policies amid opposition criticism that the lives of ordinary people are not improving. 

As more than 380 candidates took to the streets across the nation, pleading for votes from vans outside train stations and shopping arcades, Abe opened the campaign with a pledge to proceed with his "Abenomics" plan to revive the economy and pull the country out of its lengthy slump.

"The biggest topic of this election is economic policies," Abe told a crowd in Kumamoto, a southern city struck by deadly earthquakes in April. "This election is one that will decide whether to push the economic plan forward or return to the dark doldrums."

Up for grabs in the July 10 vote are 121 seats, or half of the seats in parliament's less powerful upper house.

Opposition parties are criticizing Abe's efforts to have Japan take a bigger global security role, especially his goal of rewriting Japan's pacifist constitution.

"We will stop the reckless Abe politics and change their course," Katsuya Okada, head of the main opposition Democratic Party, said in a speech in Kofu in central Japan. "We will bring a new wind into Japanese politics."

It is the first nationwide election since the voting age was lowered to 18 from 20, a step aimed at encouraging younger people to vote. 

Old-style loyalties are generally crucial in Japanese elections, so the addition of 2 million younger voters _ about 2 percent of total eligible voters -- will be closely watched, although campaign platforms largely catering to Japan's aging population have turned away young voters and experts say the impact of the expanded voting age will be minimal.

Opposition groups want to keep the ruling bloc from gaining ground in the upper house, where it has a majority but is short of the two-thirds mark.

Abe's ruling coalition holds a two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house. The support of two thirds of the lawmakers in both houses is required to hold a national referendum on changing the constitution.

As Abe tries to make the economy the biggest focus of the election instead of constitutional revision, analysts say the opposition campaign over the charter issue might have some impact.

"The outcome depends on how well the opposition can gain support in their campaign against constitutional revision," said Harutaka Takenaka, a politics professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

The splintered opposition, which held power from 2009 to 2012, disappointed the public over what was widely seen as its fumbling response to a massive 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan.

Many voters remain most concerned about problems in their daily life, including support for child and elderly care and job security, rather than defense issues and the constitution.

"I'm looking for a candidate who can actually propose concrete steps about childcare and policies related to the future of our children," said Yulia Oya, 30, a publishing company employee expecting her first child next month.

Korea Herald daum