Election win by ruling party signals change in Japan

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TOKYO -- Japanese voters handed a landslide victory to the governing Liberal Democratic Party in parliamentary elections Sunday, opening the possibility of dramatic changes in the long paralyzed country, even as it returned Japan to effective one-party rule that seemed to thwart recent hopes for a more competitive democracy.

By securing control of both houses of parliament for up to three years, the win offers Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- an outspoken nationalist who promises to revitalize Japan's long stagnant economy and strengthen its military -- the chance to be the most transformative leader in a decade. It also offered an opportunity to end the nation's series of short-lived and ineffective prime ministers.

The victory comes at a time when many Japanese seem more open than ever to change, after years of failed efforts to end the economic slump, and as an intensifying territorial challenge by China that has nudged this long pacifist nation toward seeking a more robust military.

And unlike some of Japan's previous colorless leaders, Mr. Abe, 58, seems eager to become just such an agent of change. He campaigned on promises to make fundamental, and possibly painful, changes in the economy. But his vows to stand up to China and rewrite Japan's anti-war Constitution to allow the legal right to maintain a full-fledged military, rather than self-defense forces, are raising fears he will go too far and further isolate Japan in the region.

A week before the election, he became the first prime minister to visit a tropical island near the group of uninhabited islets at the heart of the dispute with China, and had earlier raised eyebrows by riding in a tank and climbing into a fighter jet in front of cameras.

"Mr. Abe has a pragmatic side and a strongly nationalistic side," said Hiroshi Shiratori, a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo. "This election could free him up to do more of the latter, which is what he really wants."

It remains unclear how far the Japanese people may be willing to let him go. A low turnout Sunday -- 32.6 percent of voters went to the polls, down from nearly 40 percent during the last upper house election -- suggests that Mr. Abe had received less than a full mandate. While Sunday's results gave his ruling coalition a comfortable majority in the upper house, it fell short of the two-thirds majority that the Liberal Democrats and allies would need to revise the Constitution, something that has not happened since it was crafted by American occupiers after World War II.

The largest opposition group, the Democratic Party, suffered a humbling setback, securing just 17 seats from voters who still blame it for failing to deliver on promises of reform after a landmark election four years ago that ousted the Liberal Democrats in what had seemed to herald the advent of a vibrant two-party democracy. Before the vote Sunday, one weekly tabloid criticized the impending return of the Liberal Democrats' effective monopoly as "a return to the ways of our ancestors."

Analysts said support for Mr. Abe could fall once discussion turns to the specifics of constitutional reform, with polls showing a majority of voters still opposing changes to the anti-war provisions. They also said much of the support for Mr. Abe rests on the popularity of his economic stimulus policies, known as Abenomics, which have already succeeded in creating a tentative recovery by Japan's $5 trillion economy.

"This is not unconditional support for Mr. Abe's whole agenda," said Jun Iio, a political scientist at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. "Public support could evaporate if the economy starts to sour."

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