Japan's beleaguered Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday a defeat for his coalition would set back reforms as he launched his campaign for make-or-break July 29 elections.
The conservative leader marked the official start of campaigning in ominous conditions, under dark clouds and with rain falling as he canvassed for votes in Tokyo's bustling Akihabara electronics district.
"It is important that you give me the power to carry out reforms. Please give me your strength. I can't afford to lose," Abe, his voice cracking, shouted over a microphone on top of a van.
Abe acknowledged he had a tough fight ahead of him. Recent polls have put his support rate at below 30 percent amid a series of scandals, including one involving a minister who killed himself.
"We are fighting a very tough battle in this summer's elections. If you give me power, we will be able to win," he said.
"If so, we will make Japan grow further and make your lives richer," he told the audience, many of them senior citizens waving small rising-sun flags.
Police said some 2,800 people showed up for the Akihabara rally, far less than the huge crowd of young and old who came to see Abe's popular predecessor Junichiro Koizumi as he made a speech there for 2005 general elections.
As Abe made his earnest pitch in the rain, most young passers-by coming out of the nearby train station did not bother to stop.
Abe, Japan's first prime minister born after World War II, took office in September with a mission to erase legacies of defeat, including by rewriting the US-imposed 1947 Constitution.
But he has since expanded his reform message to call for an overhaul of the pension system after a government agency admitted it misplaced millions of payment records.
The pension issue is particularly sensitive in Japan, which has one of the world's oldest populations.
Opposition leaders wasted no time in attacking Abe.
"This election is a no-confidence vote on the Abe government, a vote to kick out Prime Minister Abe," Mizuho Fukushima, who heads the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, said in Tokyo.
Ichiro Ozawa, who heads the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, picked a provincial city to launch the campaign to highlight regional gaps in the nation's economic recovery.
"What is in your hands in this election is whether you leave unchanged the current politics of cutting off the weak people and provincial regions," Ozawa said in the western city of Okayama.
Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii branded the Abe government "a defective car going out of control."
The election is only for the upper house of parliament, so a defeat for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition would not automatically oust Abe as the bloc enjoys a strong majority in the lower house.
But a stinging defeat would likely lead to pressure within the party for Abe to resign and could trigger calls for an early general election to avoid a divided parliament.
Sixty-four seats from the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan nearly without interruption since 1955, are to be contested in the elections.
A total of 121 seats -- half of the upper house -- is up for grabs.
In 1998, then prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned after the Liberal Democrats won only 44 seats in an upper house election.