Japan votes: Media polls show Shinzo Abe’s election gamble could pay off

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, attends an election campaign rally in Fukushima, Japan, on Oct 10, 2017.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, attends an election campaign rally in Fukushima, Japan, on Oct 10, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s snap election gamble looked like paying off after media forecasts showed his ruling bloc heading for a surprisingly big win, possibly enough to re-energise his push to revise Japan’s post-World War Two pacifist constitution.

A hefty victory in the Oct 22 poll would raise the likelihood that his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will retain Mr Abe as its head for a third term next September, and increase the hawkish leader’s chances of going on to become Japan’s longest-serving premier.

With 10 days still to go, political sources warned there was still room for a slip up, as about half the voters surveyed remained undecided.

For now, though, projections by the Nikkei business daily, Yomiuri newspaper and Kyodo news agency showed that Mr Abe’s conservative LDP-led coalition on track to win close to 300 or more seats in the 465-member lower house, improving the super-majority that it held in the last parliament.

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 Mr 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 that Mr Abe might regret his early bid for a fresh mandate.

But his main challenger, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s fledgling conservative 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.

The month-old Party of Hope appeared set to win about 69 seats, with a range of 46-110, the Nikkei said.

Mr 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 his “Abenomics” recipe of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and promised structural reforms a success. And on Thursday (Oct 12), the stock market welcomed expectations that his reflationary policies would continue, with Nikkei index hitting its highest level since December 1996.

CONSTITUTION ON AGENDA

Pitched as a conservative, reformist alternative to the equally conservative LDP, Ms Koike’s Party of Hope aims to woo voters unhappy with Mr Abe over the suspected cronyism scandals and a perception he had grown arrogant.

Ms Koike’s party absorbed many candidates from the failed main opposition Democratic Party (DP). Other more liberal DP lawmakers formed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which media projections showed capturing more than 40 seats.

Competition among the fragmented opposition means the anti-LDP vote could be split, giving Mr 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,” said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.

Mr 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 per cent of eligible votes. The others either stayed home or backed opposition parties.

Still, a solid victory would likely encourage Mr Abe to push ahead with his proposal to revise the post-war constitution to clarify the status of Japan’s military, his long-held goal.

Pro-revision parties including the LDP and the Party of Hope were on track to win more than two-thirds of the seats, the Nikkei said. 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, the Komeito, is cautious.

But Mr Abe could well claim a mandate for his proposal, even though his own support ratings are below 40 per cent in recent polls.

“If the LDP comes back with 260-280 seats, they will claim that is a mandate for constitutional reform,” Mr Koll said.