By Elaine KurtenbachTOKYO -- Japanese broadcasters projected that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition won a majority of seats in the upper house of parliament in elections Sunday, giving it control of both chambers for the first time in six years. The victory is seen as an endorsement of Abe's economic program, which has helped spark a tentative recovery, and gives him a legislative mandate to pursue difficult economic changes that he has promised to help sustain growth in the long run. The victory in the elections, where half the seats in the 242-member upper house were up for grabs, offers Abe more leeway to advance nationalistic goals that could further strain testy relations with China and South Korea. It is a vindication for Abe, who lost upper house elections in 2007 during his previous stint as prime minister. Based on exit polls, public broadcaster NHK predicted that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, won a combined 71 seats, giving them a total of 130 seats in the chamber, more than the 122 needed for a majority. The Liberal Democrats were projected to take at least 61 seats, which together with the 50 they held before the vote would give them 111, short of an outright majority. Official results weren't expected until early Monday. Voter turnout was reported to be low, suggesting a lack of public enthusiasm. Abe says his top priority is to sustain the economic recovery that, helped along by aggressive monetary and fiscal stimuli since he took office in late December, has lifted share prices, boosted business confidence and helped exporters by weakening the yen. Japan's long-term growth will depend on sweeping changes to increase competitiveness and help cope with Japan's rapidly graying population and soaring national debt. Such changes, long overdue, are bound to prove difficult even with control of both chambers of the parliament. The LDP's vice president, Masahiko Komura, welcomed the early projections. "Obviously, the results so far show that voters want a stable government," Komura said in a live TV interview with NHK.
"We will continue to push Abenomics steadily in order to live up to their expectations," he said. The gain in parliamentary strength will help relieve the gridlock of past years, but is no guarantee of smooth sailing for the ruling bloc. Abe faces a decision this fall on whether to follow through on raising the sales tax next April from 5% to 8%, a move needed to shore up Japan's public finances, but one that many worry will derail the recovery. After more than two decades of economic doldrums, the Japanese public has grown weary of political bickering and ineffectual leadership. Bereft of an effective, united political opposition, it has opted for the perceived safety of the Liberal Democrats, who have ruled Japan for most of the past seven decades. "I want them to carry on doing their best as the economy seems to be picking up," Naohisa Hayashi, a 35-year-old man who runs his own business, said after casting his ballot at a downtown Tokyo polling station. The Liberal Democrats' "Recover Japan" platform calls a strong economy, strategic diplomacy and unshakable national security under the Japan-U.S. alliance, which allows for 50,000 American troops to be stationed in Japan. The party also favors revising the country's pacifist constitution, drafted by the United States after World War II, to give Japan's military a larger role -- a message that alarms the Chinese government but resonates with some Japanese voters troubled by territorial disputes with China and South Korea and widespread distrust of an increasingly assertive Beijing. Abe has upset both neighbors by saying he hopes to revise a 1995 apology by Japan for its wartime aggression and questioning the extent to which Korean, Chinese and other Asian women were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. Revising the constitution would require two-thirds approval by both houses of parliament and a national referendum. Polls show the public is less interested in such matters than in reviving the economy and rebuilding areas of northeastern Japan devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Very little progress has been made on reconstruction two and a half years after the disaster, or on cleaning up from the ensuing nuclear crisis at the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant that has most of Japan's atomic reactors still closed for safety checks. Despite considerable public opposition to nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, many voters appear to be willing to support the pro-nuclear LDP because they are attaching a higher priority to economic and security issues. Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster, Mari Yamaguchi and Emily Wang contributed to this report.