Japan ruling party set for strong election showing after Abe killing


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TOKYO/NARA — Japanese voters went to the polls on Sunday for a parliamentary election that may give the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) a surge of support after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a dominant politician and power broker.

Abe, Japan’s longest-serving modern leader, was gunned down on Friday during a speech in support of a local candidate in the western city of Nara, a killing the political establishment condemned as an attack on democracy itself.

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Turnout as of 4 p.m. (0700 GMT) was 23%, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said. Some 15.3% of voters had cast absentee ballots by Friday, according to government data.

Polls close at 8 p.m. (1100 GMT), when media exit poll results are expected.

“I wanted to vote for a party that has been stably in power,” said Miu Komuro, a 31-year-old who voted for the LDP in the eastern Tokyo area of Edogawa, adding that Abe’s death came as a shock.

“I believe Japan has been seen by the rest of the world as a country where things like this do not happen.”

Elections for seats in parliament’s less powerful upper house are typically seen as a referendum on the sitting government. Opinion polls before the assassination already pointed to a strong showing for the ruling bloc led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, an Abe protege.

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As the nation mourns, the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito could gain 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 the Teneo consultancy said in a note. “A wave of sympathy votes now could boost the margin of victory.”

There was an increased police presence for Kishida at a campaign event in a city southwest of Tokyo and a metal detection scanner was installed at the venue, an unusual security measure in Japan.

Nara police said they had seized a motorcycle and a vehicle belonging to the murder suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami.

From the vehicle, police retrieved trays wrapped in aluminum foil that the suspect said he had used for drying gunpowder, and wooden boards with holes that he said he had used for test-firing his homemade weapon, police said.

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The unemployed 41-year-old told police he spent months planning the attack, accusing the former prime minister of links to a religious group he blames for his mother’s financial ruin, according to Japanese media.

Nara police told a news conference on Sunday the suspect told them he arrived at a station near the scene more than an hour before the attack and passed time by visiting shopping complexes.

DEFENCE SPENDING

A strong showing at the polls could help Kishida consolidate his rule, giving the former banker from Hiroshima a chance to carry out his goal of boosting military spending. It might allow him to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, a dream Abe never achieved.

“In the months ahead, the government is certain to seek to strengthen domestic security,” Brady said. “By undermining the public’s general sense of safety and order, (Abe’s killing) could also add further momentum to those key Abe causes like defense build-up and constitutional revision.”

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Most voters favor greater military strength, opinion polls show.

Katsunori Matsuzawa, 64, told Reuters at a Nara polling station near where Abe was shot that the assassination might prompt some people on the fence to vote for the LDP. “This hasn’t affected the way I voted, but I think it will influence a lot of people,” he said, declining to say how he voted.

By contrast, Yuko Takeuchi, 52, a nurse in Tokyo who voted for the Japanese Communist Party, said: “Of course, I am very sorry for his death, but this election must be separated from that.”

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

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Reaching 69 seats would give the LDP a majority, a threshold that had been seen as a stretch before Abe’s killing. Control of government, which is decided in the lower house, is not at stake in Sunday’s election.

Even a strong LDP performance would be overshadowed by the killing of Abe, who as a lawmaker leading the party’s largest faction still wielded considerable strength over policy and personnel decisions.

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

The small, populist Japan Innovation Party, which gained seats in a general election last year, could siphon off votes from the LDP. But since the party also backs constitutional revision, any advances it makes would likely bolster the LDP’s goals.

“The shooting of ex-Prime Minster Abe was shocking but it did not affect the way I choose who to vote for,” said Yoshimi Ogata, 46, who said he voted for the LDP.

“But I can say that the shooting has became a real reminder that I need to vote and have my voice heard. This is the best I can do for Japan’s politics now.”

(Reporting by Elaine Lies in Tokyo and Satoshi Sugiyama in Nara; Additional reporting by Kevin Buckland, Yoshifumi Takemoto Kiyoshi Takenaka, Kantaro Komiya and Mariko Katsumura in Tokyo, and Tim Kelly in Nara; Editing by William Mallard, Bradley Perrett and Edmund Klamann)

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