Japan voters poised to give Shinzo Abe fresh mandate as election nears


Tokyo: More than 100 million voters head to the polls on Sunday in an election that may clear the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to become Japan’s longest-serving leader.

Polls project that Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito will maintain control of parliament while two opposition groups vie for second place. It’s unclear if Abe’s coalition will retain its two-thirds majority, which would make it easier for them to pass changes to the constitution.

A victory for Abe would bring continuity to economic policies, including the massive monetary easing that has weakened the yen and bolstered exports in Asia’s second-biggest economy. He’s campaigned on his economic record, which includes six straight quarters of growth and low unemployment even as he’s struggled to defeat deflation and boost pay.

Trump, North Korea

Abe has cultivated close ties with President Donald Trump this year in a bid to keep the US alliance strong amid growing unease over North Korea’s ballistic missiles. He’s seeking the first-ever change to the 70-year-old pacifist constitution to affirm the legality of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces.

Abe called the election more than a year early in apparent bid to capitalize on fears over North Korea and a weakened opposition. The Constitutional Democratic Party, running second in most polls, was set up only about two weeks ago by former chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano after its predecessor split up. Other opposition lawmakers defected to populist Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s upstart Party of Hope.

The CDP has adopted a center-left agenda, with pledges to increase the minimum wage and resist attempts to revise the constitution. Koike’s Hope party is closer to Abe’s LDP on many issues, though has criticized him over cronyism scandals that hurt his popularity earlier this year.

“It will be a victory by default for Prime Minister Abe,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington. “The LDP is going to win most of the single-district seats, but the proportional representation section is where it gets more interesting. The CDP could have a surprisingly strong result.”

If the ruling coalition performs well, the LDP may keep Abe as its leader in a party election next September. This could open the way for him to stay on as prime minister until 2021.

The general election on Sunday is the first to be held since the legal voting age was changed to 18. Turnout may be hurt by a typhoon on course for the south of the country.

Voting opens at 7am and closes at 8pm, when major domestic media outlets will publish the results of their exit polls. In the past, those polls have accurately predicted the outcome.