Japan poised to give Abe new election mandate

If the ruling coalition performs well, the LDP may keep Abe as its leader in next party election

By BLOOMBERG

TOKYO • More than 100 million voters cast ballots yesterday in an election that may clear the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to become Japan’s longest-serving leader.

Voting opened at 7am and closed at 8pm, when major domestic media outlets published the results of their exit polls. In the past, they have accurately predicted the outcome. A large typhoon hitting the nation is expected to drag turnout down to the lowest level since World War II.

As of 4pm, turnout was down 2.81% from the last lower house election in 2014, which was lowest since the war, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Polls project that Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) 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.

Abe is 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 capitalise on fears over North Korea and a weakened Opposition. The Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), 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 up-start Party of Hope.

The CDP has adopted a centre-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 criticised him over cronyism scandals that hurt his popularity earlier this year. “It will be a victory by default for 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 yesterday is the first to be held since the legal voting age was changed to 18.