TOKYO Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc swept to victory in a weekend Tokyo election, a sign it's on track for a hefty win in a July national vote that could strengthen Abe's hand as he aims to end economic stagnation and bolster defence.
Politicians and pundits have been eyeing the outcome of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election for clues to how well Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, the New Komeito, will fare in a July 21 election for parliament's upper house that opinion polls suggest they will win handily.
"We have received a good evaluation of our handling of the government over the past six months," Abe, who campaigned heavily for the local vote, told reporters. "We would like to do our very best so people can feel that the economy is recovering as soon as possible," Kyodo news agency quoted him as saying.
The LDP won 59 seats in the 127-member Tokyo assembly, regaining the top spot it lost four years ago, while the New Komeito took 23 seats.
In the latest sign of its faltering fortunes, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan slid to 15 seats, fewer than the Japan Communist Party's 17 seats. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's right-leaning Japan Restoration Party won just two seats, reflecting his waning popularity after remarks that seemed to justify Japan's wartime military brothels.
Voter turnout, however, was a near record low at 43.50 percent and calculations by the Tokyo Shimbun daily showed the LDP won 46.5 percent of the seats with 15 percent of all eligible votes.
"This tells us that the LDP is likely to win the upper house primarily because the opposition is divided and there is no alternative," said Chuo University political science professor Steven Reed.
Pledging to revive growth in the world's third-biggest economy, bolster its defence posture and revise Japan's pacifist constitution, Abe returned to Japan's top job after the LDP's lower house election win in December. But the LDP and New Komeito lack a majority in the upper house, which can block legislation.
That "twisted parliament" has been foiling policy implementation since the LDP's massive defeat in a July 2007 upper house election during Abe's first troubled 12-month term, which ended with his abrupt resignation two months later.
Surveys of voter preferences for the upper house vote show the LDP has a hefty lead over the demoralised opposition. A Kyodo survey on the weekend showed 28.8 percent plan to vote for the LDP against 8.2 percent for the Democratic Party.
Abe's support rates slipped a bit to 65.6 percent in the Kyodo poll, in line with recent declines that mirror a fall in Tokyo share prices reflecting concern over whether his "Abenomics" policy prescription to end stagnation will succeed.
Financial markets applauded the first two "Arrows" in Abe's policy quiver - hyper-easy monetary policy and big spending - but have grown sceptical about whether he means to follow through on pledges of structural reforms including deregulation.
Steep falls in share prices or verbal gaffes by Abe or his aides could erode support ahead of the national vote, although analysts say it would be almost impossible for the ruling bloc to lose given that the opposition is badly divided and unpopular after three years of what critics see as ineffectual DPJ rule.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Stephen Coates)