TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s conservative ruling camp braced for an expected election defeat on Sunday that could put pressure on hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resign and usher in a period of policy paralysis and political confusion.
Polling stations across Japan opened at 7 am local time, on a cool morning after temperatures reached a record high in several places on Saturday. Temperatures were expected to rise again on Sunday, with a few showers later in the day.
The sweltering heat could hit voter participation as many Japanese are escaping the cities to spend the weekend at resorts in the mountains or by the sea.
The election for half the seats in parliament’s 242-member upper house comes just 10 months after Abe, 52, took over and pledged to bolster Japan’s global security profile, rewrite its pacifist U.S.-drafted constitution, and nurture economic growth.
“This is the first national election since Abe became premier, so in that sense, it will be a verdict on his administration,” said Jun Iio, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
The LDP and its junior partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, need to win 64 seats to keep their majority in the upper house. The New Komeito is aiming for 13 seats.
The ruling camp will not be ousted from government if it loses in the upper house, since it has a huge majority in the more powerful lower chamber, which elects the premier.
But laws will be hard to enact, threatening policy deadlock.
Abe’s allies have said he need not step down even if the coalition loses and many analysts agree he might be able to hang on temporarily — especially if the LDP wins at least 40 seats — partly because of the lack of a convincing successor.
Still, pressure for him to resign is expected to grow if the coalition suffers a crushing defeat.
“Abe should quit if they lose, because it will be a vote of no-confidence,” said Hiro Takahashi, 48, who works at a financial institution and said he wanted the opposition to win.
Despite tough talk toward China before taking office, Abe won early praise for improving ties with Beijing and Seoul, chilled during the five-year reign of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.
But doubts about his leadership abilities were fanned by a series of 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 premium payments.
Only two years ago, Koizumi led the LDP to a huge victory in a lower house election that the charismatic maverick made a referendum on his pet project of privatizing the postal system.
The soft-spoken Abe, analysts say, was always at risk of suffering by comparison with the sound-bite savvy Koizumi.
“Koizumi was dynamic and we got used to that image,” said 37-year-old printing company employee Kazutomo Nishiwaki, who added that he wanted to see the ruling camp lose.
Critics also 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 such as the economy, pensions and health care.
“Basically, I’m an LDP supporter, but this time I think their policies are a bit off the mark,” said Manabu Matsuo, a 52-year-old employee of a precision instrument manufacturer.
“I voted ahead of time and this time, to send them a message, I didn’t vote for the LDP,” Matsuo added. He said he nonetheless didn’t want to see the party — which has ruled for most of the past five decades — lose its grip on government.
Hoping to woo those hit by Koizumi’s market-friendly reforms, opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa — a pugnacious veteran who bolted the LDP 14 years ago — has pledged to shrink income gaps and ensure the weak are not neglected.
Ozawa, 65, has said he will step down as party leader and not run for parliament again if the opposition fails to win this time.
Some analysts and politicians say a deadlock could spark an early election for the lower house, but with a massive majority in the chamber, the ruling camp would be wary of taking that risk. No general election need be held until 2009.
additional reporting by Sophie Hardach