Japanese voters delivered the ruling coalition a strong majority in parliamentary elections for the upper house Sunday, days after former prime minister Shinzo Abe was gunned down on the campaign trail in Nara.
Preliminary results showed that the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition allies, Komeito, now control at least 146 seats in the 248-strong House of Councillors, half of which was up for election Sunday.
“It’s significant we were able to pull this election together at a time violence was shaking the foundations of the election,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said after voting closed. “Right now, as we face issues including the coronavirus, Ukraine and inflation, solidarity within the government and coalition parties is vital.”
On Friday, Mr. Abe was shot while speaking in support of Kei Sato, a candidate for the LDP, which the former prime minister led to repeated victories in the eight years running up to his resignation in 2020. The LDP was already favourites before Mr. Abe’s assassination, and most analysts expected that if the killing had an effect on voting, it would be to strengthen support for the ruling party.
LDP members held a moment of silence for Mr. Abe at its Tokyo headquarters as they waited for results to come in.
Turnout was up two percentage points Sunday compared with the last upper-house elections in 2019, with more than 51 per cent of voters casting a ballot. These figures do not include early, absentee or overseas votes.
Mr. Kishida and figures across the political spectrum had called on voters to take part Sunday in order to show support for the country’s democratic system after the assassination.
In an editorial Sunday, the liberal Asahi Shimbun connected Mr. Abe’s killing to political violence in Japan in the post-Second World War period, as well as recent international events such as the storming of the U.S. Capitol last year. It wrote “this is a time for each and every one of us to make a renewed commitment to rebuilding democracy in this nation and vow to never allow it to slip through our fingers.”
There was an increased police presence at Mr. Kishida’s event on Saturday, with metal detectors installed at the venue, an unusual security measure in Japan where politicians typically interact directly with the public, as Mr. Abe was doing when he was killed.
Elections to the less-powerful upper house are typically seen as an interim report card on the government’s performance, and a poor showing by Mr. Kishida could have raised questions about his future as leader of the LDP and therefore Prime Minister.
Mr. Kishida succeeded Yoshihide Suga last year after the latter resigned in the wake of plummeting popularity caused by a perceived mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis and the Tokyo Olympics. Prior to Mr. Abe’s record-breaking stint as premier from 2012 to 2020, Japan went through five prime ministers in as many years.
Despite growing concerns around a weakened yen, inflation and the cost of living, which opposition parties have attempted to peg to Mr. Kishida’s policies, polls before Mr. Abe’s assassination predicted a strong showing for the LDP and its junior partners Komeito.
Exact numbers will not be confirmed until later Monday when proportional representation seats are tallied. According to Kyodo, a total of 545 candidates were vying for the 125 contested seats, including a record 181 female candidates.
With few expecting the election to shake the LDP’s position as the most powerful force in Japanese politics, both Mr. Abe’s assassination and Sunday’s election could reshape internal dynamics within the conservative party. Mr. Abe was head of the largest LDP faction, seen as opposing Mr. Kishida’s plans for a “new capitalism” and greater wealth distribution.
The makeup of the upper house will also effect the LDP’s long-running goal of altering Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution, which has not been changed for 75 years.
Mr. Abe, despite his dominance of Japanese politics for the best part of a decade, was never successful in pushing through plans to modify the constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. The LDP already controls more than enough seats in the lower House of Representatives.
Mr. Abe had been pushing the Kishida administration to pursue such goals in the days before his death, and some commentators have urged Tokyo to follow through out of respect for the slain former prime minister, allowing Japan to take on a greater security role in the Asia-Pacific for which he had long strived.
In an editorial Sunday, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun said Japan had lost “both an important leader and the image of a safe country” in Friday’s incident.
“The government needs to take that fact seriously and make every effort to ensure domestic security,” the paper said. “It is important to rebuild the sluggish economy, strengthen international contributions, and raise the national power of Japan.”
With a report from Reuters
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