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Japan's Abe unbowed by defeat

  • Story Highlights
  • Exit polls reportedly show crushing election defeat for Japan's PM
  • Election held for half of the seats in Japan parliament's upper house
  • Defeat could put pressure on hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resign
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TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative ruling camp suffered a devastating defeat in upper house elections on Sunday, a result that could well force Abe to quit and paralyze policy-making.


Shinzo Abe's coalition will struggle to enact laws if it loses control of the upper house, threatening deadlock.

Public broadcaster NHK, however, said Abe intended to stay in his post.

"I would like to steadily proceed with education reform and revising the constitution," NHK quoted Abe as saying.

Voters, angry at scandals and gaffes among his cabinet and government bungling of pension records, had stripped Abe's coalition of a majority in parliament's upper house in the first national electoral test since he took office, NHK said.

"If the outcome is in line with projections, it was a complete defeat," Hidenao Nakagawa, the LDP's secretary-general, told reporters, but he added that he wanted Abe to stay.

The broadcaster said its exit polls showed that the LDP and its partner, New Komeito, winning between 39 and 55 seats -- far short of the 64 needed to keep their majority in the upper house, where half of the 242 seats were up for grabs.

Abe's coalition will not be ousted from government by a loss in the upper house, since it has a huge majority in the more powerful lower chamber, which elects the premier.

But, with the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan on track to become the biggest party in the chamber, laws will be hard to enact, threatening policy deadlock.

Critics say Abe, whose top priorities are revising the constitution and reforming education to nurture patriotism, was out of touch with voters' worries about bread-and-butter issues.

"Prime Minister Abe has projects like revising the constitution, but the Democrats have been saying that people's everyday lives should come first. I think those policies should be prioritized," said Hirofumi Nemoto, 48, a newspaper seller in Chiba, who said he voted for the Democratic Party.

Analysts said Abe would still face pressure to go.

"Abe might stay, at least for a while, but there will be criticism, definitely," said Martin Schulz, a senior researcher at Fujitsu Research Institute. "He will get a lot of pressure."

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Abe, who had pledged to boost Japan's global security profile and rewrite its pacifist constitution, won praise for improving ties with Beijing and Seoul that had chilled during the five-year reign of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

But doubts about Abe's leadership were fanned by gaffes and scandals that led two cabinet members to resign and one to commit suicide, as well as revelations that the government had lost track of millions of pension premium payments.

Only two years ago, sound-bite savvy Koizumi led the LDP to a huge victory in a lower house election but the soft-spoken Abe, analysts say, was always at risk of suffering by comparison.

Targeting those hit by Koizumi's market-friendly reforms, Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa -- a pugnacious veteran who bolted from the LDP 14 years ago -- pledged to shrink income gaps and ensure the weak are not neglected.

A weakened ruling bloc is expected to try to bolster its hand by wooing independents, members of a small party, and conservatives in the Democratic Party, some of whom are seen ripe for poaching.

Some analysts said a deadlock could spark an early election for the lower house.

"Bills would not pass the upper house, so the ruling bloc would be forced to dissolve the lower house and hold a snap election," said Hokkaido University professor Jiro Yamaguchi.

With a massive majority in the chamber, however, the ruling camp would be wary of taking that risk, other analysts said.

No general election need be held until 2009. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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