Abe, who took office in December 2012 pledging to restart the economy and bolster defence, is already on track to become Japan’s longest-serving premier if he stays on until November, a stunning comeback after he abruptly ended a first, troubled one-year term in 2007.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner, the Komeito party, will take 67-77 of the 124 seats being contested in parliament’s 245-seat upper house. That, together with uncontested seats, assures them a majority.
Still up in the air, however, is whether the ruling bloc and its allies will keep the two-thirds “super majority” needed to begin the process of revising the constitution’s pacifist Article 9 to further legitimise the military, a controversial step.
To maintain that majority, pro-revision forces need to win 85 seats. NHK’s exit poll said they would take 76 to 88 seats.
The charter has not been amended since it was enacted in 1947 and changing it would be hugely symbolic, underscoring a shift away from post-war pacifism already under way.
Article 9, if taken literally, bans maintenance of a military but has been stretched to allow armed forces for self-defence.
Gaining a two-thirds majority, however, would not ensure Abe’s proposal to enshrine the military in the constitution would succeed, given differences among lawmakers on what exactly should be changed, political analysts noted.
Surveys show voters are divided over changing it, with opponents worried doing so would increase the risk of Japan getting entangled in U.S.-led conflicts.
Any change must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of parliament and a majority in a public referendum. The LDP-led bloc has a two-thirds majority in the lower house.
Abe pushed his LDP-led coalition as the best bet for political stability during his campaign.
Opposition parties focused on voters finances, including a potential hit on spending from an October rise in the sales tax to 10% and strains in the public pension system due to Japan’s quickly ageing population.
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai told a TV broadcaster that he’d support Abe if he wanted to seek a fourth term as ruling party president when his current tenure ends in September 2021. That would require a change in party rules.
“Of course, I’d support him. Because he has the support of the people,” Nikai said.
Abe has led his party to victory in five national elections since 2012 helped in part by a fragmented opposition. That pattern looked set to repeat on Sunday, according to media reports.
The main opposition Constitution Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) was set to increase its seats but remain dwarfed by the LDP, exit polls showed.