Japan votes: Ruling bloc heads for big win despite voter distaste for Shinzo Abe

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is projected to win as many as 303 of the 465 seats up for grabs in the Oct 22 election, according to a poll by the Mainichi Shimbun.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is projected to win as many as 303 of the 465 seats up for grabs in the Oct 22 election, according to a poll by the Mainichi Shimbun. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS, AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition is on track for a big win in Sunday’s (Oct 22) general election – even though almost half the country’s voters do not want him to keep his job, a media survey showed on Monday.

Behind that paradox is a fizzling challenge by an upstart party led by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, 65, a divided opposition and jitters about a volatile North Korea that incline wary voters toward a safe pair of hands, political analysts said.

Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is set to win between 281  and 303 seats in the 465-member lower house, while its junior coalition partner the Komeito is on track to take 30-33 seats, the Mainichi newspaper said, based on an Oct 13-15 survey.

That would put the ruling bloc on track to maintain the two-third’s “super majority” it held before the chamber was dissolved for the snap election.

That means Mr Abe’s grip on his post is all but assured when parliament convenes to elect a premier after Sunday’s poll.

A two-thirds majority in parliament would allow the 63-year-old to push through an amendment to Japan's pacifist constitution. The hawkish premier has called for changes to the US-imposed law so Japan can turn its self-defence forces into a full-fledged army.

The Mainichi survey, however, showed that 47 per cent of voters would prefer not to see Mr Abe stay in his post. Mr Abe took office nearly five years ago promising to bolster defence and boost growth with his “Abenomics” strategy.

Thirty-seven per cent want him to remain.

“Abe is not popular, but his party is trusted by enough voters to win big if only because the new parties are untested and have not generated excitement,” said Mr Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.

An electoral system where 289 seats are from single-member districts where the candidate with a plurality of votes wins and others get no representation at all also means a split opposition benefits Mr Abe’s LDP. The rest of the chamber’s seats are from proportional representation blocs.

Ms Koike’s fledgling Kibo no To (Party of Hope), which the former LDP lawmaker launched last month as a “reformist, conservative” alternative to the LDP, is likely to win between 42 and 54 seats.

The Party of Hope absorbed a big chunk of the failed main opposition Democratic Party. But an early burst of voter enthusiasm seems to have dissipated after Ms Koike declined to run for a lower house seat or say whom her party would back as a candidate for premier.

The party’s platform also shares much of Mr Abe’s hawkish security agenda, but differs by promising to freeze a planned sales tax hike and to exit nuclear power by 2030.

"Expectations were high but the Party of Hope has nothing but Koike's popularity," said professor of politics Koji Nakakita at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

"Support for Abe's cabinet is not so high but voters have no choice but to vote for Abe's LDP," Prof Nakakita told AFP, with the opposition parties facing "confusion and divisions".

A smaller Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), formed by liberal members from the Democratic Party, was set to win between 45 and 49 seats, the Mainichi said – raising the possibility that it might become the leading opposition group.

The CDPJ “crept up from nowhere", Mr Kingston said. “It is clear there are a lot of people who feel left by the wayside by Abenomics.”

The Mainichi poll was conducted on Friday, Saturday and Sunday across the nation, with more than 73,000 eligible voters surveyed by phone.

The 12-day election campaign has focused on reviving Japan's once world-beating economy and tackling the ever-present threat of North Korea which has threatened to "sink" the country into the sea.

"This is an election to question how we can protect our people's lives and good living from North Korea's threats," Mr Abe said at a campaign rally in the northern city of Hokkaido on Sunday.