Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faced his first electoral test as leader yesterday in two by-elections set to provide a litmus test of his popularity following the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Although the results of two suburban by-elections cannot overturn the ruling coalition's huge majority in the House of Representatives, they are expected to provide an early guide for crucial upper-house elections next July.
Voting stations in the two constituencies -- a district in Kanagawa, west of Tokyo and the other in Osaka, the country's second biggest urban region -- closed at 8pm, with the first exit poll results expected shortly afterward.
Yesterday's results will be closely watched to see how voters are assessing Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration amid North Korea's nuclear threat and following his fence-mending trips to China and South Korea earlier this month.
The by-elections may also show whether Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), who is known as a shrewd political strategist, can succeed in turning the tide against the ruling camp.
Seven hours after polls started, turnout rates were 23.69 percent and 25.79 percent -- nearly 10 percent lower than figures for the same time in the general election last year which gave Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi a landslide victory.
Recent opinion polls suggest Abe's hawkish stance on Kim Jong-il's regime has proved popular, with the major daily Yomiuri Shimbun reporting last Tuesday that Abe's government enjoyed 70 percent public support.
Abe, who has built his career on campaigning against North Korea's nuclear ambitions and its abductions of Japanese during the Cold War era, was elected on Sept. 26 as Japan's youngest prime minister since World War II.
The 52-year-old went to China and South Korea on his first overseas trip as prime minister to mend bilateral relations strained by Koizumi's repeated visits to a Tokyo war shrine linked to Japan's militarist past.
North Korea announced its maiden nuclear test on Oct. 9, as Abe arrived in Seoul from Beijing, pushing his much-touted "assertive diplomacy" into the spotlight, a strategy he has defended in the by-election campaign.
"With China and South Korea, we will build up relations which can cope with the North Korean question," Abe said in a by-election campaign speech in Sagamihara, west of Tokyo.
But opinion polls suggest the nuclear crisis is not the only issue voters in the two constituencies are worried about, a fact the opposition parties have tried to exploit.
A recent poll showed that both constituencies regarded pension and welfare reforms as the government's top priorities, far ahead of North Korea.
In campaign speeches the DPJ argued against increased individual payments into the social welfare system.
"Abe's Cabinet, which inherited Koizumi's reform, is not contributing to better daily lives of citizens," Ozawa has said.
In the two districts, the LDP, the DPJ and the Japan Communist Party have each placed one candidate.
The conservative LDP has a solid majority in the 480-seat lower house with 292 seats.
Its coalition partner, the Buddhist backed centrist party Komeito, holds 31 seats against the DPJ's 113.
In the House of Councillors, the LDP holds 111 seats and relies on Komeito's 24 seats for securing a majority vote in the 242-seat upper house.