U.S. News

Big Loss for Japan's Ruling Party; Abe Vows to Stay On

Associated Press

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged his responsibility for the humiliating defeat of his scandal-plagued coalition in upper house elections, but pledged to remain in office despite expected calls for his resignation.

Crippled in Sunday's elections by voter anger over a slew of scandals, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party -- which has controlled Japan's government virtually uninterrupted since 1955 -- was projected to fall far short of the 64 seats it needed to hold a majority with its coalition partner in the 242-seat upper house.

The long-sidelined main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, meanwhile, made a huge gain, taking 60 of the 121-contested seats, to 37 for the LDP, according to final counts early Monday reported by Kyodo News agency. Official results were expected within hours.

"The responsibility for this utter defeat rests with me," a grim and chastened-looking Abe said at his party's headquarters late Sunday.

The LDP still controls the more powerful lower chamber, which chooses the prime minister, and it would be unusual for a premier to step down after an upper-house defeat. But calls for Abe's resignation from within the Liberal Democratic Party were expected to grow, and reshuffling of his Cabinet would be imminent, according to party members.

Abe dismissed questions about whether he should resign. "I must push ahead with reforms and continue to fulfill my responsibilities as prime minister," he said.

The defeat will make it more difficult for the LDP to pass bills that are contested, with the upper house expected to have a president from the Democratic Party whose members would also dominate key posts in house committees.

"A major blow to the Abe government," the largest newspaper Yomiuri newspaper said Monday.  Sunday's defeat was worse than expected.

The LDP and its junior coalition partner, the New Komei Party, won 103 seats -- a 30-seat loss that left it far short of the 122 needed to control the house. The Democratic Party grabbed 112 seats, up from 81, Kyodo said. Official results were not expected until early Monday local time.

Opposition leaders were elated at the results. "The nation has spoken very clearly," DPJ executive Naoto Kan told reporters at DPJ headquarters. "Naturally, our sights are on the lower house and our final goal is a change in government."

Abe's top lieutenant, party No. 2 Hidenao Nakagawa, said late Sunday he would step down to take responsibility for the party's setback.

Abe, 52, took office in September as Japan's youngest-ever prime minister, promising to build a "beautiful Japan," and won points for mending strained diplomatic ties with South Korea and China.

But his honeymoon was short-lived. In the first in a series of scandals, Administrative Reform Minister Genichiro Sata stepped down in December over charges of misusing of political funds. In May, Abe's agriculture minister killed himself amid allegations he also misused public money. The new agriculture minister became embroiled in another funds scandal.

Perhaps the final straw for voters was Abe's brushing off warnings by the opposition late last year that pension records had been lost. That inaction came back to haunt him in the spring, when the full scope of the records losses emerged. Some 50 million claims had been wiped out.

"I don't like Abe or the LDP. I don't get the feeling things have gotten better," said Masayoshi Miyazaki, 58, a Tokyo retiree, after polls closed.

Ruling lawmakers have indicated a Cabinet reshuffle in coming weeks. "Our party must reflect on the results and rebuild itself," Yoichi Masuzoe, who retained his LDP seat, said early Monday, urging Abe to "form a well-balanced and strong Cabinet" in the expected reshuffle.

Party officials said last week they would keep Abe regardless of the results. Resigning in the face of a heavy election defeat is not unprecedented.

In 1998, then-Prime Minster Ryutaro Hashimoto was forced to step down after the Liberal Democratic Party won just 44 seats out of 121. Sousuke Uno lost his job as prime minister after winning only 36 seats in 1989. Abe himself resigned as secretary-general of the party in 2004, when the Liberal Democrats won 49 seats, two short of their goal.