Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, its junior partner in the ruling coalition, won the Lower House election by a landslide Sunday, claiming 325 seats in the powerful chamber.
In an election billed as a touchstone for the LDP’s economic policies, the ruling bloc secured a two-thirds supermajority in the 475-seat House of Representatives, giving it the power to override the Upper House.
After focusing most of his campaign on the economy, Abe said in an interview on TV Asahi Sunday night that he would pursue his pet goal of amending the pacifist Constitution, a contentious issue he avoided but which promises to drastically change the nation’s defense posture.
Among the high-profile candidates who won were the LDP’s scandal-hit former trade minister Yuko Obuchi, who ran in the Gunma No. 5 district, and fellow disgraced Cabinet castaway Midori Matsushima, the former Justice Minister, who ran from the Tokyo No. 14. district.
Popular LDP member Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, handily won the race in his Kanagawa No. 11 district.
In contrast, unsuccessful candidates included Democratic Party of Japan President Banri Kaieda, who lost his seat in the Tokyo No. 1 district and is now set to resign as party leader. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the gutsy DPJ street-fighter who ran from the Tokyo No. 18 district, also lost in his single-seat electoral district, but managed to edge out a win in the proportional representation segment.
Another loser was outspoken former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, now the supreme adviser of Jisedai no To (Party for Future Generations). He was listed low on the party’s proportional representation list.
With a total of 1,191 candidates vying for 475 seats in the House of Representatives, Sunday’s poll was widely seen as a referendum on Abe’s economic policies, dubbed “Abenomics” — a policy mix of radical monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform vows.
The resounding win expected for the ruling bloc may allow the conservative leader to argue more convincingly that the public supports Abenomics as the way to end deflation and shore up the long-stagnant economy.
The prospect would virtually ensure Abe’s re-election as prime minister later this month, and as LDP president next fall, keeping him in power for another three years.
Toshimitsu Motegi, election campaign chief of the LDP, said he believes voters supported Abe’s economic policies. “We have argued (Abenomics) is the only way, and the reactions of voters have been really good,” he said after victory became certain.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso said separately that Abenomics “is still half-finished, so we need to carry it out to the end.”
Abe told voters in his final campaign speech on Saturday evening in Tokyo’s Akihabara district that “Abenomics will increase employment and wages. It’s important to bring the warm winds of economic recovery” across the country.
The LDP won 290 seats, falling short of the 295 that it held before the House of Representatives was dissolved on Nov. 21. However, the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, gained four slots for a total of 35, putting the ruling bloc’s combined strength at 325 seats, compared with 326 before the election.
The number of seats in the house was reduced by five from the previous poll due to electoral reform.
Abe is expected to be re-elected as the nation’s 97th prime minister during a special Diet session and form a new Cabinet as early as Dec. 24, although many Cabinet ministers are expected to keep their posts, ruling coalition lawmakers said.
With the 325 seats, the ruling coalition will garner the chairs all of committees in the lower chamber and have the ability top override Upper House vetoes.
Final voter turnout stood at 52.66 percent, down from the previous postwar low of 59.3 percent in the 2012 general election that paved the way for Abe’s return as prime minister, according to Kyodo News estimates.
The DPJ improved to 73 seats from the 62 it held before the dissolution of the Lower House, while the Japanese Communist Party capitalized on opposition to Abe’s policies, gaining 21 seats, sharply up from the eight it held before the election.
Tetsuro Fukuyama, the DPJ’s policy chief, said in a TV interview Sunday evening that the election happened “out of the blue” and his party was not ready to field enough candidates to take on the LDP.
DPJ Secretary-General Yukio Edano echoed him, saying in a televised interview, “We are very sorry for voters in constituencies in which we were not able to field our candidates.”
“The election came at a time when our party was in the course of reconstruction from scratch after falling from power following the last general election” in 2012, Edano said. “We regarded this election as the first step toward the next phase for reconstruction by increasing seats” in the Lower House.
The 475 seats were composed of 295 for single-seat districts and 180 for proportional representation districts. The number was reduced by five due to recent election reforms aimed at correcting the long-ignored disparity between rural and urban voting weights that favored the ruling bloc.
Despite Abe’s a big win, however, political pundits have warned that it doesn’t necessarily translate to outright support for his policies, given the recent economic indicators pointing to a recession.
Abe called the snap election late last month after economic data showed the economy had contracted for two consecutive quarters since the April consumption tax hike to 8 percent from 5 percent.
Abe postponed the second stage of the tax hike to 10 percent, initially scheduled for October 2015, to April 2017, then dissolved the Lower House for a snap election he said was needed to claim a mandate for his policies — the economic ones, anyway.
Recent opinion polls show increasing dissatisfaction with Abenomics but also with the opposition, which has failed to provide policy alternatives of its own.
Some remain disappointed by the DPJ’s failure to show the nation that an opposition party can actually govern when it seized power in 2009.
With no parties opposing Abe’s delay of the sales tax hike, the opposition didn’t have much ammunition to fight Abe and allowed him to frame the election as a referendum on Abenomics.
The DPJ blasted Abenomics for widening the gap between haves and have-nots and highlighted the adverse effects of the April tax hike on economic growth.
In his final campaign appeal Saturday, DPJ President Banri Kaieda asked voters to think before voting.
“The danger is that the Abe administration does not listen to the people’s voices,” Kaieda said in Tokyo. “Are you going to support another four years of Mr. Abe’s politics?”
Other opposition lawmakers issued similar warnings.
“If you give a sweeping victory to the Abe administration, it will increase the likelihood of restarting nuclear power plants rapidly, and Japan getting dragged into war by sending Self-Defense Forces troops overseas,” Kenji Eda, who co-heads Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, said in his final plea Saturday in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.
“It’s our party that has been trying to confront the administration that’s going full throttle,” said Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii in a final speech in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. “Let’s raise our voices and stop another tax hike.”
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