TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played up signs of economic recovery and appealed to voters for political stability in a debate Wednesday, a day before campaigning starts for upper house elections set for July 21.

Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, are expected to gain a majority in the less powerful upper house through the elections, when half the chamber's 242 seats will be up for grabs. That would give them control of both chambers of parliament for as long as three years if early elections aren't called, making it easier to pass legislation after years of gridlock from a "twisted parliament," in which the opposition controls the upper house.

Abe's Cabinet has enjoyed relatively strong public support since taking office in December after the LDP's landslide victory in lower house elections, thanks largely to his three-pronged economic revival program dubbed "Abenomics," which includes massive monetary easing and public spending. Business confidence has bounced back, stock prices have risen sharply and the weaker yen has given exporters relief.

Abe boasted about the 4.1 percent annual economic growth rate in the first quarter, and pledged to lift Japan out of years of deflation.

"Thanks to everyone's strength, politics has changed and the economy has begun to move," he said. "We will win the election, end the twisted parliament and deliver visible results that you can see."

Flanked by eight other party leaders in a debate held at the Japan National Press Club, Abe was the target of many of the questions posed by political rivals and experts querying his economic policies, views on revising the constitution, nuclear power and ties with China and South Korea.

Questioned about whether his government will go ahead with plans to raise the sales tax in April to 8 percent from 5 percent, Abe said that raising taxes was still an essential part of reducing Japan's bulging national debt, but that his government would be making decisions while closely monitoring the economy.

The lack of an appealing alternative to the LDP should also benefit the party in the upcoming elections. Voters are deeply disappointed in the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, which ruled the country for just over three years from 2009 to the end of 2012, because it failed to deliver on campaign promises.

Currently, the LDP has 50 seats in the upper house that won't be contested, while the Komeito has nine, given them a total of 59. So together they need to win 63 seats to gain a majority of 122 in the chamber, which experts say is likely.

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