The Democratic Party of Japan scored big gains in the House of Councilors election Sunday and was poised to outperform Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party in the number of seats won.
The LDP appeared to have fallen short of its target of winning 51 seats, but the party’s ruling alliance with New Komeito retained a solid majority in the 242-seat Upper House.
Of the 117 seats whose results were known as of press time, the LDP had won 48 against the 49 captured by the DPJ. The DPJ was poised to eventually outnumber the LDP in the remaining seats contested in proportional representation.
The DPJ had 38 seats up for grabs this time.
Despite the specter of his party falling short of its target, Koizumi said he has no plans to step down and pledged to pursue his reform initiatives as leader of the majority alliance.
LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe said senior party executives are in consensus that Koizumi should stay at the helm of the coalition.
DPJ chief Katsuya Okada meanwhile voiced hope that the party’s strong performance will give further momentum to its bid to take power from the LDP-led coalition in the next general election of the Lower House.
New Komeito won 10 seats — the same number it had up for grabs.
The Japanese Communist Party and Social Democratic Party were facing an uphill battle. The JCP had won only three seats as of press time — down sharply from the 15 it had up for grabs.
The SDP retained its two seats that were in contention, including the one secured by party chief Mizuho Fukushima.
Of the closely watched candidates in the election, Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka, a key architect of Koizumi’s economic reform initiatives who was running on the LDP’s proportional representation ticket, declared victory early in the evening.
Of the closely watched 27 prefectural constituencies where one seat each was contested, the LDP won in 14 races and lost in 13. In the last Upper House election, in 2001, the LDP swept 25 of the 27 races.
The triennial election, in which half of the Upper House’s 242 seats were up for grabs, was held amid declining popular approval ratings for the Koizumi Cabinet.
Koizumi has come in for criticism over pension reform issues and the deployment of Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq, where they have become part of a multinational force.
The election saw 320 candidates vying for 121 seats.
The LDP had set a target of winning 51 seats — the 50 LDP seats that were up for grabs this time, plus one made vacant in April when an LDP Upper House member resigned to run in a Lower House by-election.
The LDP’s Abe said Sunday’s results would not lead to Koizumi’s resignation, pointing out he was elected prime minister by the House of Representatives.
New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki also indicated his party would continue to support Koizumi as head of the ruling alliance.
The LDP-New Komeito alliance easily retained a comfortably majority in the upper chamber because they already hold a combined 79 seats that were not up for grabs Sunday.
However, Koizumi’s clout within the LDP and the coalition may weaken, possibly affecting his ability to pursue reforms in politically sensitive issues like postal privatization.
Speaking in a series of live interviews with TV stations Sunday evening, Koizumi admitted the election outcome reflected public disappointment with his handling of the pension reform and Iraq issues.
However, he expressed confidence in his ability to continue his reform efforts, “as long as the ruling alliance retains a majority in both chambers of the Diet.”
Voting at 53,000 polling stations nationwide closed at 8 p.m. Some 100 million people aged 20 or older were eligible to cast votes.
Kyodo News estimated turnout would be about 55.4 percent — slightly below the 56.4 percent recorded in the 2001 Upper House election.
Just a few months ago, the LDP’s 51-seat target was viewed as modest.
Amid public frustration over reforms to the public pension system and the SDF deployment to Iraq, however, the tide turned to the extent that, a week before election day, major newspapers unanimously forecast that the LDP would have a hard time winning 50 seats.
The DPJ took advantage of public disquiet over the government and the coalition’s handling of the pension reform and Iraq issues.
Okada claimed his party won support from the voters because the ruling bloc failed in its obligation to explain its policies on pension reform and SDF deployment in Iraq.
He also said the election will add further momentum toward a two-party system, in which the DPJ will compete with the LDP for power.
“It seems real to us that the time has come (for the people) to choose the party in power from two major parties,” Okada told reporters.
“(We) feel (our party) was finally recognized as a party that can come to power.”
He went on to say the DPJ attracted support in rural Japan — once an LDP stronghold — as well as female voters because the party strongly advocated measures to revive agriculture and rural areas, to overhaul the ailing pension system and to support child-rearing.
Okada said the DPJ will try to scrap the government’s pension reform program and call for withdrawal of the SDF troops in Iraq.
The LDP’s Abe meanwhile claimed the coalition had insufficient time before the election to explain to the public about the need for the pension reform.