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Abe cements power with sweeping victory in upper house race

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strengthened his grip on power Sunday with his ruling coalition winning a comfortable majority in the upper house election, enabling him to pursue his goal of economic recovery amid greater political stability.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its smaller partner, the New Komeito party, ended years of opposition control of the House of Councillors by gaining 76 of the 121 seats up for grabs.

The parties now have a total of 135 seats in the 242-seat house, including the 59 they already held that were not contested this time -- well above the threshold of 129 necessary to control all standing committees in the chamber. The result will facilitate passage of bills as the ruling bloc has an overwhelming majority in the more powerful lower house.

"I must respond to people's hopes that I will bring about (an economic recovery) that they can actually feel," Abe told reporters late Sunday night. "I will make timely, speedy decisions (in the Diet) while being committed to humble debate" on crucial issues.

Regaining control of the upper chamber, which Abe lost in 2007 during his first stint as premier, is likely to accelerate his drive toward key policy goals. These include revising the nation's pacifist Constitution to enhance Japan's defense capabilities amid tensions over North Korea's nuclear ambitions and China's military assertiveness.

Ending the division in the Diet will likely boost political stability in Japan, which has seen new prime ministers almost every year since 2006. No further parliamentary elections are due until 2016, unless the House of Representatives is dissolved.

Against that backdrop, Abe is expected to push such contentious policies as raising the consumption tax from April to restore fiscal health, restarting stalled nuclear power plants despite public concerns following the 2011 Fukushima crisis, and pursuing freer trade under the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership amid protests by domestic farmers.

In Sunday's election, the LDP alone obtained 65 seats, a record high since the current electoral system was introduced in 2001, while New Komeito won 11 seats.

By contrast, most opposition parties performed poorly. The Democratic Party of Japan, the biggest among them, gained 17, the lowest since the party was established in 1998.

"We were unable to regain voters' confidence," DPJ President Banri Kaieda said, attributing the defeat to the party's failure to live up to expectations during its three years in power through last December, when it was trounced by LDP in a general election. But Kaieda expressed his intention to remain at the DPJ's helm.

Among the smaller opposition parties, Your Party and the Japan Restoration Party, both of which advanced in December's general election, slumped with only eight seats each. The Social Democratic Party obtained only one seat, the lowest since its launch in 1996, while People's Life Party and the Green Wind party gained no seats. Kuniko Tanioka expressed her intention to step down as Green Wind leader.

Bucking the negative trend, the Japanese Communist Party secured a record high of eight seats, keeping its momentum from last month's Tokyo metropolitan assembly election.

Half of the upper house seats come up for election every three years.

A total of 433 candidates vied for the 121 seats, of which 73 were filled by winners in 47 prefectural electoral districts and the remaining 48 by those chosen under the nationwide party-list proportional representation system.

Voter turnout was 52.61 percent, the third-lowest on record, the government said.

In this election, candidates and parties were allowed for the first time to use e-mail and social networking sites for campaigning, a step to counter political apathy, especially among young people.

Abe became prime minister for the second time after the December lower house election, making economic recovery his top priority. He quickly introduced a series of policies dubbed "Abenomics" aimed at ending nearly two decades of deflation by sparking mild inflation.

He has said the government will draw up additional growth-stimulus measures this fall such as tax reductions for companies increasing their capital spending.

Abe has also displayed a determination to revise the country's war-renouncing Constitution to allow Japan to play a greater security role in Asia.

In the election, though, the LDP and some opposition parties that are supportive of a revision fell short of a two-thirds majority in the upper house, one of the conditions for initiating the revision process.

The widely perceived shift to the right in Japanese politics under Abe's leadership has made some neighboring countries nervous, most notably China and South Korea, which suffered at the hands of the Japanese military during World War II.

==Kyodo

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/kyodo-news-international/130721/abe-cements-power-sweeping-victory-upper-house-race