Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s snap election gamble looked like it was paying off after a Kyodo News poll forecast a big win for the ruling bloc, with a margin of victory possibly enough to re-energize his push to revise the post-World War II pacifist Constitution.
A hefty victory in the Oct. 22 poll would raise the likelihood that his Liberal Democratic Party will retain Abe as its head for a third term next September, and increase the hawkish leader’s chances of going on to become the longest-serving prime minister.
With 9 days to go until the Lower House election, political sources warned there is still room for a slip up, as about half the voters in the survey remained undecided.
For now though, the Kyodo projections released Wednesday showed Abe’s conservative LDP-led coalition on track to win close to 300 or more seats in the 465-member Lower House, improving the supermajority that it held in the last Diet.
The LDP alone could win about 288 seats, or about the same as before dissolution, Kyodo forecast.
“The scramble gamble paid off for Abe,” said Jesper Koll, head of equity fund WisdomTree Japan. “If the LDP gets 250-280 seats, he’s safe.”
With no election needed until late next year, some analysts had predicted Abe might regret his early bid for a fresh mandate.
But his main challenger, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s fledgling conservative Kibo no To (Party of Hope), appeared to be struggling, despite calls for popular policies such as an exit from nuclear power and a sales tax hike freeze.
Kibo no To may win around 60 seats, while another new face, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, may take 30 seats or more, according to Kyodo’s forecast.
Of those surveyed, 54.4 percent said they have not yet decided who to cast their ballots for in single-seat districts, leaving room for the situation to change.
In the upcoming election, 289 lawmakers will be elected from single-seat districts and the remaining 176 through proportional representation in 11 regional blocks.
According to the survey, the LDP is doing well in around 220 of the single-seat districts and is overwhelming other parties in the 11 proportional representation blocks, where ballots are cast for parties rather than individual candidates.
The LDP, on its own, may be able to gain a far larger number of seats than a simple majority, which is 233 seats. Komeito is expected to win 35 seats at best, the same number it held before the chamber was dissolved, and there is a high possibility it will not win that many.
Abe called the snap election amid disarray in the opposition camp and after an uptick in his ratings, which had been hurt earlier this year by scandals over suspected cronyism.
He has called Abenomics a success — combining hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and promised structural reforms. And on Thursday the stock market welcomed expectations that his reflationary policies would continue, with the Nikkei index hitting its highest level since December 1996.
Pitched as a conservative, reformist alternative to the equally conservative LDP, Koike’s Kibo no To aims to woo voters unhappy with Abe over the suspected cronyism scandals and a perception he’d grown arrogant.
Koike’s party absorbed many candidates from the failed main opposition Democratic Party. Other more liberal DP lawmakers formed the CDP.
Competition among the fragmented opposition means the anti-LDP vote could be split, giving Abe an advantage.
“Even if Abe wins handsomely, that won’t be because of his own surging support, but because of the last-minute destruction of the opposition,” Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University professor, said.
Abe has led the LDP to four landslide wins since he took the helm of the party in 2012, but turnout has been low and the LDP has typically won with about 25 percent of eligible votes. The others either stayed home or backed opposition parties.
Still, a solid victory would likely encourage Abe to push ahead with his proposal to revise the postwar Constitution to clarify the status of the Self-Defense Forces, his long-held goal.
Pro-revision parties, including the LDP and Kibo no To, were on track to win more than two-thirds of the seats, according to the Kyodo survey. Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers and a majority in a public referendum.
Agreeing on what to amend would still be difficult, and revising the charter’s pacifist Article 9 remains contentious. The LDP’s dovish coalition partner, Komeito, is cautious.
But Abe could well claim a mandate for his proposal, even though his own support ratings are below 40 percent in recent polls.
“If the LDP comes back with 260 to 280 seats, they will claim that is a mandate for constitutional reform,” Koll said.