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Abe coalition secures big Japan election win with record low turnout

TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s coalition has cruised to a big election win, ensuring he will stick to reflationary economic policies and a muscular security stance, but record low turnout pointed to broad dissatisfaction with his performance.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner, the Komeito party, won 326 seats in Sunday’s election, more than the 317 seats in the 475-member lower house required to maintain a two-thirds “super-majority” that smoothes parliamentary business.

The tally was unchanged from the number of seats held by the coalition before the poll. But LDP itself slipped slightly to 291 seats from 295.

“I believe the public approved of two years of our ‘Abenomics’ policies,” Abe said in a televised interview. “But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent.”

Many voters, doubtful of both the premier’s “Abenomics” strategy to end deflation and generate growth and the opposition’s ability to do any better, stayed at home.

Turnout was estimated to be a record low of 53.3 percent, substantially below the 59.3 percent in a 2012 poll that returned Abe to power for a rare second term on pledges to reboot an economy plagued by deflation and an ageing, shrinking population.

In a sign of the fragility of Abe’s mandate, the LDP won 75 percent of the seats in single-member districts that account for 295 lower house seats with just 48 percent of the vote, data in the Tokyo Shimbun metropolitan newspaper showed.

But with the mainstream opposition still weak, any opposition to Abe’s policies will likely come from his allies in the dovish Komeito party, which increased its seats to 35 from 31, and from inside the LDP itself, should the economy falter.

Tokyo’s Nikkei share average opened down 1.50 percent on the widely-expected election results after a weak performance by the U.S. stock market on Friday.

Analysts said the outcome would be positive for shares and negative for the yen in the near term given expectations Abe will stick to a “Three Arrows” strategy of hyper-easy monetary policy, government spending and reforms.

“But medium-term, investors will be watching to see if Japan is changed structurally,” said Tsuyoshi Ueno, senior economist at NLI Research Institute.

Doubts persist over whether Abe will knuckle down on his “Third Arrow” of reforms in politically sensitive areas such as labor market deregulation and an overhaul of the highly protected farm sector. Media said he was likely to keep his cabinet unchanged.

PATCHY RECOVERY, WEAK OPPOSITION

Hopes for Abenomics were hit when Japan slipped into recession in the third quarter following an April sales tax rise. Wage increases have not kept pace with price rises and data suggest any economic rebound is fragile.

Highlighting the patchy recovery, big Japanese manufacturers’ sentiment worsened slightly in the three months to December but corporate spending plans were strong, the Bank of Japan’s closely-watched quarterly “tankan” survey showed on Monday.

Abe decided last month to put off a second tax hike to 10 percent until April 2017, raising concerns about how Japan will curb its huge public debt, the worst among advanced nations.

“Between now and the delayed tax increase, we need to revive the economy and find a path to fiscal rebuilding,” said LDP lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi. “If you think about it in that way, even though we have won, there is no room here for celebrating.”

Abe, whose support has now sagged well below 50 percent, called the election after just two years in office to strengthen his grip on power before tackling unpopular policies.

That includes restarting nuclear reactors taken off-line after the 2011 Fukushima disaster and a security policy shift away from post-war pacifism.

The LDP-led coalition victory could ease Abe’s path to re-election in a party leadership race next September, boosting the likelihood, but by no means guaranteeing, that he stays in power through 2018 and becomes one of Japan’s rare long-term leaders.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won 73 seats, largely due to voters’ memories of a 2009-2012 rule plagued by policy flip-flops, infighting and three premiers in three years.

DPJ leader Banri Kaieda, criticized by many in his own camp for lack of charisma, lost his seat. The party’s limp performance has raised concerns Japan is returning to one-party dominance that characterized politics for decades – although some analysts said the poor showing of rival mini-parties suggested the opposition could begin to coalesce around the DPJ.

The Japan Communist Party won 21 seats, more than double its strength before the election, gaining support from protest voters loath to back the Democrats. (Reuters)

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