The candidate of Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party was assured of victory in a House of Councillors by-election on Sunday, Kyodo News projections based on exit polls showed, boosting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition as it bids to gain control of both houses of parliament.
With the victory of 56-year-old LDP newcomer Kiyoshi Ejima in the four-way contest, the coalition of the LDP and the New Komeito party would need to win 63 seats in July's House of Councillors election, when half of the chamber's 242 seats will be up for grabs, to secure control of the upper house.
The closely watched by-election in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan, where Abe's constituency is located, was the first opportunity for voters to deliver a verdict on the policies of the government launched four months ago, including its economic policies centered on aggressive monetary easing and massive public spending to combat Japan's chronic deflation.
The election was also contested by former Justice Minister Hideo Hiraoka, backed by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, and two other candidates after the seat was left vacant when then LDP upper house member Nobuo Kishi, who is Abe's brother, decided to run in last December's lower house election.
"I felt (the voters') strong expectations for the Abe administration," Ejima, a former mayor of the prefectural city of Shimonoseki, said as he celebrated his projected victory before a crowd of around 500.
In Tokyo, LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba said, "The result is extremely significant as it was the first national-level electoral test since the LDP's return to power."
"We will be humble about this endorsement (by the voters) and the Abe Cabinet will continue its careful steering," Ishiba said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told Kyodo News that the government's "economic policy, reconstruction policy following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster and its security policy have won public support. We want to continue to make progress on various issues in a humble manner."
Abe, whose ruling coalition holds over two-thirds of the 480 seats in the more powerful House of Representatives, has said that gaining control of both houses of parliament will lead to stable government.
The government has enjoyed relatively high support ratings ranging from around 60 to 75 percent in various media polls since its launch, apparently reflecting high expectations of an economic turnaround.
The DPJ, meanwhile, strongly supported the 59-year-old Hiraoka, who was running as an independent, but appears to have failed to turn the tide in its favor. The party led by Banri Kaieda is still struggling to rebuild following its crushing defeat in the December lower house election that ended its three-year rule.
Ejima's projected win would give the LDP 84 seats in the 242-seat chamber, only one seat less than the DPJ-led alliance in the upper house. But as an upper house member has already announced his intention to leave the DPJ, the two parties would be effectively tied.
Hiraoka also had the backing of the Green Wind party and the Social Democratic Party.
"I knew very well that it would be a tough election," Hiraoka told a group of 30 supporters in the city of Iwakuni. "But I have no regrets."
Abe's decision to secure Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations was another issue in the by-election, along with the construction of a new nuclear power plant in the Yamaguchi prefectural town of Kaminoseki following the 2011 nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that has affected the country's nuclear policy.
Japan's participation in the U.S.-led talks involving 11 Pacific Rim countries has fueled concerns that Japanese farmers could be hurt by an influx of cheap agricultural products.
The LDP waged an all-out battle to win the by-election, with Abe and senior party officials travelling to stump for the party's candidate.
As of 7:30 p.m., voter turnout stood at 28.54 percent, down 18.98 percentage points from the same time in the upper house election in 2010, according to the prefectural election board.
Naoko Fujii, 60, a former assembly member of the Japanese Communist Party in the prefectural city of Shunan, and Miwako Kawai, a 50-year-old member of the Happiness Realization Party also contested the seat.