Japan’s ruling party braces for strong election after Abe murder


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TOKYO — Japanese voters headed to the polls on Sunday for an upper house election in which the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could receive a boost in support following the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a prominent statesman and party broker.

Abe, Japan’s oldest modern leader, was shot dead during a speech in support of a local candidate in the western city of Nara on Friday – a murder the political establishment has condemned as an attack on democracy itself .

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Elections for seats in the less powerful upper house of parliament are generally seen as a referendum on the incumbent government, and the latest opinion polls have already shown a strong performance for the Prime Minister-led ruling bloc. minister Fumio Kishida – a protege of Abe.

As the nation mourns, the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito could benefit from a potential wave of sympathy votes, political analysts said.

« The ruling LDP-Komeito coalition was already on course for a solid victory, » James Brady of consultancy Teneo said in a note. « A flurry of sympathy votes now could increase the margin of victory. »

Campaigning was halted on Friday after Abe’s murder, but politicians resumed pre-election activities on Saturday.

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There was an increased police presence when Kishida appeared at a campaign event in a town southwest of Tokyo and a metal detector scanner was installed at the site – an unusual security measure in Japan .

Polling stations opened at 7:00 a.m. (22:00 GMT Saturday) and closed at 8:00 p.m. (11:00 GMT). Media said 15.3% of voters voted by mail in advance.

A strong performance at the polls could help Kishida consolidate his power, giving the former Hiroshima banker a chance to achieve his goal of increasing defense spending.

It could also allow him to overhaul Japan’s pacifist constitution – something even warmonger Abe has never been able to achieve.

« In the coming months, the government will certainly seek to strengthen homeland security, » Brady said.

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« By undermining the public’s overall sense of safety and order, the event could also give new impetus to such key Abe causes as defense building and constitutional review, » he added.

POWERFUL PARTY VACUUM

Polls last week showed the LDP winning at least 60 of the 125 seats contested on Sunday, up from the 55 it currently holds, allowing it to retain a majority in the chamber it holds with Komeito.

Reaching 69 seats in the upper house would give the LDP a majority, a threshold that had been considered a stretch before Abe’s murder.

Kishida, once on the more dovish side of the LDP, shifted to the right and said parts of the constitution may contain « outdated and missing » elements.

Opinion polls show that a majority of voters favor a greater military force.

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But even a strong performance by the LDP will be overshadowed by the killing of Abe, who as leader of his largest faction still wielded considerable force over political and personal decisions.

His death raises the specter of a power vacuum and potential unrest within the party, analysts said.

Japan’s small populist Innovation Party, which won seats in last year’s general election, could siphon votes from the LDP. But since the party also supports constitutional revision, any advances it makes would likely bolster the LDP’s reform goals. (Reporting by Elaine Lies editing by David Dolan, Helen Popper and Sandra Maler)

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