YAMAGUCHI – Exit polls showed former Shimonoseki Mayor Kiyoshi Ejima headed for victory Sunday in the House of Councilors by-election in Yamaguchi Prefecture, boosting the chances of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party gaining control of both houses of the Diet this summer.
Kyodo News projections saw Ejima, 56, clinching the four-way contest, which means the ruling coalition will need to win 63 seats in July to gain control of the Upper House, where half of the 242 seats will be up for grabs.
The closely watched poll in Yamaguchi — Abe’s base — provided the first chance to gauge voter sentiment on the new government launched just four months ago.
As of 7:30 p.m., however, voter turnout stood at a shocking 28.54 percent, down 18.98 points from the same time during the Upper House election in 2010, according to the prefectural election board.
Abe’s economic “policies,” a mix of aggressive monetary easing and massive public spending intended to deliver a temporary jolt to the deflation-mired economy, has given stock market investors clear bets to make by driving down the yen and favoring exporters.
But whether he will actually propose true structural reforms to update the dilapidated economy won’t be known until the last minute in June.
Ejima, making his first foray into national politics, faced off against former Justice Minister Hideo Hiraoka, backed by the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, and two other candidates for the seat vacated by then-Councilor Nobuo Kishi, who decided to run in the Lower House election last December.
Abe, whose ruling coalition holds more than two-thirds of the 480 seats in the more powerful House of Representatives, is gunning to win control of both chambers to pursue his nationalist agenda, which involves rewriting the Constitution and history books.
The government has enjoyed relatively high opinion poll ratings of around 60 to 75 percent since it was established, apparently reflecting high expectations for an economic turnaround.
The DPJ, meanwhile, strongly supported the 59-year-old Hiraoka, who was facing a stiff fight running as an independent in Abe’s domain. The party, now led by Banri Kaieda, is still struggling to rebuild from its crushing defeat in the December general election that ended its three-year debut as a ruling party.
A win will give the LDP 84 seats in the 242-seat chamber, just one less than the DPJ-led alliance in the Upper House. Since an Upper House member has recently announced his intention to leave the DPJ, however, the two parties would be effectively tied.
Hiraoka also had the backing of the Midori no Kaze (Green Wind) party and the Social Democratic Party.
Abe’s decision to participate in the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks was another issue in the by-election, along with a proposal to build a new nuclear power plant in the town of Kaminoseki following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Japan’s participation in the U.S.-led TPP involving 11 Pacific Rim countries has fueled concerns that Japanese farmers could be savaged by an influx of cheap agricultural products.
The LDP waged an all-out battle to win the by-election, with Abe and senior party officials traveling around to stump for Ejima.
Naoko Fujii, 60, a former Shunan city assembly member who belongs to the Japanese Communist Party, and Miwako Kawai, 50, of the Happiness Realization Party also ran for the seat.