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

  • Abe’s LDP enjoys sympathy vote
  • Former prime minister shot dead two days before election
  • A good performance would strengthen the reign of Prime Minister Kishida

TOKYO/NARA, Japan, July 10 (Reuters) – Japanese voters headed to the polls on Sunday for a legislative election that could bring renewed support to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a dominant politician and power 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 . Read more

Turnout at 2 p.m. (0500 GMT) was 18.8%, the Home Office said, up from 18.0% at the same time in the last upper house election in 2019. Some 15, 3% of voters had voted by mail on Friday, according to government data.

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Polls close at 8:00 p.m. (11:00 GMT), when the results of the media exit polls are expected.

“We just lost Mr. Abe. I would like the LDP to win many votes so that he can lead the country in a stable way,” said Sakae Fujishiro, a 67-year-old pensioner who voted for the ruling party. in The eastern Edogawa district of Tokyo.

Elections for seats in the less powerful upper house of parliament are generally considered a referendum on the incumbent government. Opinion polls before the assassination were already pointing to a strong performance by the ruling bloc led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, an Abe protege.

As the nation mourns, the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito could benefit from a possible 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.”

There was an increased police presence for Kishida 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. Read more

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

From the vehicle, police recovered trays wrapped in foil that the suspect said he used to dry gunpowder, and wooden planks with holes he said he used to test his homemade weapon, police said.

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

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

DEFENSE SPENDING

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 military spending. This could allow him to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, a dream Abe never realized.

“In the coming months, the government will certainly be looking to strengthen homeland security,” Brady said. “By undermining the public’s overall sense of safety and order, (Abe’s murder) could also give new impetus to such key Abe causes as defense strengthening and constitutional review.”

Most voters favor a greater military force, according to opinion polls.

Katsunori Matsuzawa, 64, told Reuters at a Nara polling station near where Abe was shot that the killing could spur some people on the fence to vote for the LDP. “It didn’t affect how I voted, but I think it will influence a lot of people,” he said, declining to say how he voted.

In contrast, Yuko Takeuchi, 52, a nurse in Tokyo who voted for the Japanese Communist Party, said, “Of course, I’m very sorry for his death, but this election should be separate from that one.”

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, the LDP has a majority, a threshold that had been considered a stretch before Abe’s murder. Control of the government, which is decided in the lower house, is not at stake in Sunday’s election.

Even a strong performance by the LDP would be overshadowed by the killing of Abe, who, as a lawmaker leading the party’s 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 goals.

“The shooting of ex-Prime Minister Abe was shocking but it didn’t affect how 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 become a real reminder that I must vote and make my voice heard. It’s the best I can do for Japanese politics now.”

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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 and Bradley Perrett

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