TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s snap election gamble looked like paying off after media forecasts showed his ruling bloc heading for a surprisingly big win, possibly enough to re-energise his push to revise Japan’s post-World War Two pacifist constitution.
A hefty victory in the Oct.22 poll would raise the likelihood that his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will retain Abe as its head for a third term next September, and increase the hawkish leader’s chances of going on to become Japan’s longest-serving premier.
With 10 days still to go, political sources warned there was still room for a slip up, as about half the voters surveyed remained undecided.
For now though, projections by the Nikkei business daily, Yomiuri newspaper and Kyodo news agency showed Abe’s conservative LDP-led coalition on track to win close to 300 or more seats in the 465-member lower house, improving the super-majority that it held in the last parliament.
The LDP alone could win about 288 seats, or about the same as before dissolution, Kyodo forecast.
“The scramble gamble paid off for Abe,” said Jesper Koll, head of equity fund WisdomTree Japan. “If the LDP gets 250-280 seats, he’s safe.”
With no election needed until late next year, some analysts had predicted Abe might regret his early bid for a fresh mandate.
But his main challenger, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s fledgling conservative Party of Hope, appeared to be struggling, despite calls for popular policies such as an exit from nuclear power and a sales tax hike freeze.
The month-old Hope party appeared set to win about 69 seats, with a range of 46-110, the Nikkei said.
Abe called the snap election amid disarray in the opposition camp and after an uptick in his ratings, which had been hurt earlier this year by scandals over suspected cronyism.
He has called his “Abenomics” recipe of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and promised structural reforms a success. And on Thursday the stock market welcomed expectations that his reflationary policies would continue, with Nikkei index hitting its highest level since December 1996.
Pitched as a conservative, reformist alternative to the equally conservative LDP, Koike’s Hope party aims to woo voters unhappy with Abe over the suspected cronyism scandals and a perception he’d grown arrogant.
Koike’s party absorbed many candidates from the failed main opposition Democratic Party (DP). Other more liberal DP lawmakers formed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which media projections showed capturing more than 40 seats.
Competition among the fragmented opposition means the anti-LDP vote could be split, giving Abe an advantage.
“Even if Abe wins handsomely, that won’t be because of his own surging support, but because of the last-minute destruction of the opposition,” said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
Abe has led the LDP to four landslide wins since he took the helm of the party in 2012, but turnout has been low and the LDP has typically won with about 25 percent of eligible votes. The others either stayed home or backed opposition parties.
Still, a solid victory would likely encourage Abe to push ahead with his proposal to revise the post-war constitution to clarify the status of Japan’s military, his long-held goal.
Pro-revision parties including the LDP and the Party of Hope were on track to win more than two-thirds of the seats, the Nikkei said. Amending the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers and a majority in a public referendum.
Agreeing on what to amend would still be difficult, and revising the charter’s pacifist Article 9 remains contentious. The LDP’s dovish coalition partner, the Komeito, is cautious.
But Abe could well claim a mandate for his proposal, even though his own support ratings are below 40 percent in recent polls.
“If the LDP comes back with 260-280 seats, they will claim that is a mandate for constitutional reform,” Koll said.
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore