TOKYO/NARA, Japan, July 10 (Reuters) – Japan’s conservative coalition government was projected to increase its majority in the upper house of parliament in an election on Sunday, two days after the assassination of dominant politician and power broker Shinzo Abe.
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving modern leader, was gunned down on Friday during a campaign speech in the western city of Nara in a killing that stunned a country where political violence and gun crime are rare.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), of which Abe remained an influential lawmaker, and its junior partner Komeito were on track to win 69 to 83 of the 125 seats contested in the chamber, from 69 previously, according to an exit poll by public broadcaster NHK.
Elections for parliament’s less powerful upper house are typically a referendum on the sitting government. Change of government was not at stake, as that is determined by the lower house.
But the strong showing could help Kishida consolidate his rule as he looks to steer Japan’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, keep a lid on rising consumer prices, and bolster defence at a time of tension with its powerful neighbour China.
Final results are due on Monday.
“It’s significant we were able to pull this election together at a time violence was shaking the foundations of the election,” Kishida, an Abe protege, said after the exit poll.
“Right now, as we face issues including the coronavirus, Ukraine, and inflation, solidarity within the government and coalition parties is vital,” he added.
The party held a moment of silence for Abe at its Tokyo headquarters as members waited for results to come in.
The LDP was projected to win as many as 69 seats, according to the exit poll, which would give it a majority even without Komeito.
Its gains might allow Kishida to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, a dream Abe never achieved.
Parties open to revising the constitution were projected to maintain their two-thirds majority in the upper house.
Kishida may move cautiously on constitutional change, but the apparent victory looked set to pave the way for more defence spending, a key LDP election promise, said Robert Ward of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Kishida “now has a green light for this”, Ward said.
Asked about constitutional revision on Sunday evening, Kishida said he would focus on putting together a bill to be discussed in parliament.
People close to Kishida have said his team also wants to gradually phase out “Abenomics”, Japan’s signature economic policy of government spending and monetary stimulus named after the ex-premier who started the experiment nearly a decade ago.
Kishida may now have the political capital to change course, analysts said, and is also likely to have three years to drive through legislation before another election needs to be held.
“Kishida may have more leeway in pursuing policies based on his ideas, though lawmakers who were close to Abe could rally and more vocally call for sustaining Abenomics,” said Koya Miyamae, senior economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.
THE ABE EFFECT
Shigenobu Tamura, a political analyst and former LDP staffer, said Abe’s assassination may have bolstered the ruling party’s support in “hotly contested districts”.
Other analysts said the exit poll was broadly in line with pre-election surveys. Voter turnout was expected to rise to 51.58% from 48.8% at the last upper house election three years ago, Kyodo news agency estimated.
Abe was stumping for LDP candidate Kei Sato in Nara when he was shot from close-range by a man with a homemade gun.
The ex-premier “was shot in an act of terrorism in the midst of our election campaign,” Sato said after the exit poll projected he would win his seat. “We continued our campaign in the belief that we must not cave into terrorism or fear it – we must overcome it.”
Nara police said on Sunday they had seized a motorcycle and a vehicle belonging to the murder suspect, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, who was arrested at the scene.
Police said that they retrieved trays wrapped in aluminium foil from the vehicle, which they said the suspect told them he had used for drying gunpowder, and wooden boards with holes that he said he had used for test-firing his crude weapon made of wood and metal.
The suspect told police he spent months planning the attack, accusing the former prime minister of links to a religious group he blames for his mother’s financial ruin, according to Japanese media. Read full story
Police said the suspect told them he arrived at a station near the scene more than an hour before the attack and passed time by visiting shopping complexes.
SHIGENOBU TAMURA, POLITICAL ANALYST AND FORMER LDP STAFFER
“Given that the coalition has gained a majority, going over their goal, and the four parties that want to revise the constitution also have gone over the needed number of seats, you can say that this is a huge victory for the LDP. It’s a very good result for the Kishida government.
“There’s a possibility that the impact of Abe’s killing led to the victory of the LDP in hotly contested districts. They’ve also expanded their seats in proportional representation.
“I think that in governing after this, Kishida will be influenced by the idea of carrying out Abe’s wishes. That’s especially true with revising the constitution.
“The big problem is the rise of prices due to the weak yen, and what will Kishida do about economic policy? What will he do about the fact that salaries haven’t risen for decades. Facing up to this directly is essential. Demands for him to breathe life into the economy will grow. But because of the incident involving Abe, it should be easier to shift away from Abenomics.”
NOBUYASU ATAGO, CHIEF ECONOMIST, ICHIYOSHI SECURITIES, JAPAN
“The focus of this election was blurred, so it’s hard to gauge the fallout on economic policy at this stage. Having said that, there will likely be no major change to the broad policy direction.
“Abe had great communication skills and was a symbolic figurehead endorsing reflationist-minded policies. His absence will have a huge influence on the ruling party’s policies. The power of reflationists likely peaked out.
“The challenge Kishida faces is how to re-define Abenomics, and build on its accomplishments. Kishida will likely shift towards fiscal discipline, while maintaining spending to some degree. He will also give the Bank of Japan a free hand in guiding monetary policy, though much will depend on how the Ministry of Finance, and Kishida’s aides close to the ministry, act.”
COREY WALLACE, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, KANAGAWA UNIVERSITY
“The exit polls are essentially in line with pre-election surveys by the media organisations. They suggest the LDP will do a little better in terms of overall seat numbers than they did in 2016 and 2019, but that has as much to do with opposition party weakness and weakened cooperation between the different parties.
“I cannot see any evidence in the exit polling suggesting a surge in support for the LDP that could be put down to Abe’s murder. Voter turnout also appears to be in line with expectations. A little bit up on 2019, but not much.”
MASAMICHI ADACHI, CHIEF ECONOMIST, UBS SECURITIES, JAPAN
“We can’t say there was absolutely no influence,” when asked whether Abe’s death could have affected the poll outcome. “But it seems voter turnout didn’t rise much.
“We can say Abe’s absence has taken some pressure off Kishida to ramp up fiscal stimulus … Unless the successor to head the faction Abe led within the ruling party is someone very powerful, Japan’s fiscal policy could shift slightly hawkish.”
AIRO HINO, POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR, WASEDA UNIVERSITY
“Looking at this, it appears the LDP will be able to extend its seats and there will be enough seats won through the various parties to have the two-thirds majority needed to revise the constitution. It’s pretty much as expected but the incident two days ago may well have had an impact.
“Now I think that with Kishida in power, debate over revising the constitution is likely to speed up.”
ROBERT WARD, JAPAN CHAIR, INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES
“No surprises. Need to wait now to see whether the pro-constitutional reform parties have their two-thirds majority. I still think Kishida will move cautiously, even if they do. Change will require considerable political capital – witness the intensity of the 2015 legal changes initiated by Abe to expand the role of the Self Defense Force.
“On defence, the Liberal Democratic Party manifesto promised defence spending would rise to 2% or more of GDP. Clearly, he (Kishida) now has a green light for this, although questions remain over what they’ll be spending the money on, where the money will come from.”