Abe strengthens power base with sweeping upper house election victory

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to strengthen his grip on power Sunday with his ruling coalition certain to win a comfortable majority in the upper house election, which will enable him to pursue his goal of economic recovery with greater political stability.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its smaller partner, the New Komeito party, are set to end years of opposition control of the House of Councillors by winning over 70 of the 121 seats up for grabs, according to projections.

This means the LDP and the New Komeito would secure a comfortable majority of 129 in the 242-seat house, including the 59 they already hold that were not contested this time, to control all standing committees as well as the chamber itself. That would facilitate the 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, adding, "I will make timely, speedy decisions (in the Diet) while being committed to debates humbly" on crucial issues.

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

Ending the division in the Diet would help secure political stability in Japan, which has seen new prime ministers almost every year since 2006. There will be no further parliamentary elections in the country until 2016, unless the House of Representatives is dissolved.

Against that backdrop, Abe is likely 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.

The LDP alone is expected to obtain 64 seats or more, a record high since the current electoral system was introduced in 2001, while New Komeito is assured of maintaining its 10 seats.

Opposition parties were struggling to enhance their support. The Democratic Party of Japan, the biggest among them, is projected to win less than 20 seats, 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. Kaieda expressed his intention to remain at the DPJ's helm.

Among the smaller opposition parties, Your Party and the Japan Restoration Party are projected to win less than 10 seats each. Bucking the negative trend, the Japanese Communist Party is expected to secure seven or more seats, a record high.

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

A total of 433 candidates were vying for the 121 seats, of which 73 will be 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 52.60 percent as of 1 a.m., the third-lowest on record, according to Kyodo projections.

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 are expected to fall 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.