Abe's coalition projected to win majority in Japan's upper house

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to strengthen his grip on power Sunday with his ruling coalition projected to win a majority in the upper house, following an election seen as a judgment on his seven months in office and his policies to boost the Japanese economy.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition 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 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. Regaining control of the house is a key hurdle Abe must overcome to pursue his policy goals, which include revising the nation's pacifist Constitution.

Opposition parties were fighting an uphill battle 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 are also struggling to enhance their support.

The 17-day official campaign period ended Saturday. Among other issues, opposition parties have criticized Abe for plans to raise the sales tax and restart idled nuclear power plants, and for Japan's deteriorating relations with China and South Korea.

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 32.64 percent as of 6 p.m., compared with 39.60 percent in the previous election in 2010, the government said. Pre-election day voting was up 7.15 percent to 12.95 million.

Half of the upper house seats come up for election every three years. Abe lost the ruling camp's majority in the chamber in 2007 during his previous stint as prime minister.

Abe recently mentioned his goal of winning at least 70 seats, which would mean the LDP and Komeito would control all standing committees as well as the chamber. That would facilitate the passage of bills as the ruling bloc already holds an overwhelming majority in the more powerful House of Representatives.

Winning a majority in the upper house and ending the division in the Diet would consolidate the LDP's return to power in last December's general election, when it trounced the DPJ after three years in opposition.

Opposition parties have pitched their policies under such themes as seeking deeper economic reforms than Abe's growth strategy, eliminating nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima crisis, and shelving the government's plan to increase the consumption tax rate from next April.

Abe became prime minister for the second time after the December general 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.

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

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.