Japan ruling party heads to victory in wake of Abe's death

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Fumio Kishida, second left, Japan's prime minister and president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), speaks after placing a red paper rose on an LDP candidate's name, to indicate a victory in the upper house election, at the party's headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday, July 10, 2022. (Toru Hanai, Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, second left, and other officials place paper roses next to candidates' names to mark victories in Japan's elections. (Toru Hanai / Pool Photo)

Japan's governing party and its coalition partner scored a major victory in a parliamentary election Sunday, possibly propelled by sympathy votes in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Early results in the race for the parliament's upper house showed Abe's governing party and its junior coalition partner Komeito securing a majority in the chamber and adding more. The last day of campaigning on Saturday, a day after Abe was gunned down while delivering a speech, was held under heightened security as party leaders pledged to uphold democracy and condemned violence.

Also Sunday, police in western Japan sent the suspected assassin to a local prosecutors' office for further investigation. A top regional police official acknowledged possible security lapses that allowed the attacker to get so close and fire a bullet at the still-influential former Japanese leader.

Preliminary vote counts showed the governing Liberal Democratic Party on track to secure a coalition total of at least 143 seats in the 248-member upper house, the less powerful of the two chambers. Up for election was half of the upper house’s new six-year term. With a likely major boost, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stands to rule without interruption until a scheduled election in 2025.

That would allow Kishida to work on long-term policy goals such as national security, his signature but still vague “new capitalism” economic policy, and his party’s long-cherished goal to amend the U.S.-drafted postwar pacifist constitution.

Kishida and senior party lawmakers observed a moment of silence for Abe at the party election headquarters before placing on the whiteboard victory ribbons next to the names of candidates who secured their seats.

In the wake of Friday's brazen killing, Sunday’s vote took on a new meaning, with all political leaders emphasizing the importance of free speech and their pledge not to back down on violence against democracy.

“It was extremely meaningful that we carried out the election,” Kishida said. “Our endeavor to protect democracy continues.”

Kishida welcomed early results and said responses to COVID-19, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and rising prices will be his priorities. He said he will also steadily push for reinforcing Japan's national security as well a constitutional amendment.

Early results suggested a charter change proposal is now a possibility. The LDP and its junior partner as well as two supportive opposition parties together are certain to secure enough seats needed for an amendment proposal, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses. The governing bloc already has secured support in the other chamber.

On the final day of campaigning Saturday, party leaders avoided fist-bumps or other close-proximity friendly gestures they used to enjoy with the public — a sign of tightened security following Abe's assassination during a campaign rally.

Mourners visited the LDP headquarters to lay flowers and pray for Abe as party officials prepared for vote counting inside.

“We absolutely refuse to let violence shut out free speech,” Kishida said in his final rally in the northern city of Niigata on Saturday. “We must demonstrate that our democracy and election will not back down on violence.”

Abe was shot in Nara on Friday and airlifted to a hospital but died of blood loss. Police arrested a former member of Japan’s navy at the scene and confiscated a homemade gun. Several others were later found at his apartment.

The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told investigators he acted because of Abe's rumored connection to an organization that he resented, police said, but had no problem with the former leader's political views. The man had developed hatred toward a religious group that his mother was obsessed about and that bankrupted a family business, according to media reports, including some that identified the group as the Unification Church.

Abe's body, in a black hearse accompanied by his wife, Akie, returned to his home in Tokyo's upscale Shibuya, where many mourners, including Kishida and top party officials, paid tribute. His wake and funeral are expected in coming days.

Nara prefectural police chief Tomoaki Onizuka on Saturday said that problems with security were undeniable, that he took the shooting seriously and will review the security procedures.

Japan is known for its strict gun laws. With a population of 125 million, it had only 21 gun-related criminal cases in 2020, according to the latest government crime paper. Experts say, however, some recent attacks involved use of consumer items such as gasoline, suggesting increased risks for ordinary people to be embroiled in mass attacks.

Even after stepping down as prime minister in 2020, Abe was highly influential in the LDP and headed its largest faction. His absence could change the power balance in the governing party that has almost uninterruptedly ruled postwar Japan since its 1955 foundation, experts say.

“This could be a turning point” for the LDP over its divisive policies on gender equality, same-sex marriages and other issues that Abe-backed ultra-conservatives with paternalistic family values had resisted, said Mitsuru Fukuda, a crisis management professor at Nihon University.

Japan's current diplomatic and security stance is unlikely to be swayed because fundamental changes had already been made by Abe. His ultra-nationalist views and pragmatic policies made him a divisive figure to many, including in the Koreas and China.

Abe stepped down two years ago blaming a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis he’d had since he was a teenager. He said he regretted leaving many of his goals unfinished, including the issue of Japanese citizens abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia, and a revision of Japan's war-renouncing constitution that many conservatives consider a humiliation, because of poor public support.

Abe was groomed to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. His political rhetoric often focused on making Japan a “normal” and “beautiful” nation with a stronger military through security alliance with the United States and bigger role in international affairs.

He became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, at age 52. But his overly nationalistic first stint abruptly ended a year later, also because of his health, prompting six years of annual leadership change.

He returned to office in 2012, vowing to revitalize the nation and get its economy out of its deflationary doldrums with his “Abenomics” formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. He won six national elections and built a rock-solid grip on power.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.