Abe to win upper house poll, push reforms under political stability

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to strengthen his grip on power Sunday with his ruling coalition projected 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 almost certain to end years of opposition control of the House of Councillors by winning over 70 of the 121 seats up for grabs, according to exit polls by Kyodo News.

The projection would mean the LDP and Komeito would secure a comfortable majority of 129 to control all standing committees as well as the chamber itself. That would facilitate the passage of bills as the ruling bloc already holds an overwhelming majority in the lower house.

"I must respond to people's hopes that I will bring about (an economic recovery) that they can actually feel," Abe said in a television program, welcoming early projections of the election results.

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.

The result would bring the total number of seats the parties hold to around 130 in the 242-seat chamber, including the 59 they already hold that were not being contested this time.

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 more powerful House of Representatives is dissolved.

Against that backdrop, Abe is likely to push such contentious policies as raising the consumption tax 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.

Opposition parties were fighting an uphill battle during the election campaign to erode the relatively strong public support for the Abe administration.

The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest among them, is projected to lose more than half its 44 contested seats, while smaller parties were also struggling to enhance their support.

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. The outcome of the election will become clear by early Monday.

Voter turnout was 51.57 percent as of 9 p.m., according to Kyodo projections, well below the 57.92 percent in the previous upper house election in 2010.

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

The LDP's projected victory in the election follows its trouncing of the DPJ in December after three years in opposition.

Since then Abe has 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.