Japan's ruling party suffered a devastating defeat in parliamentary elections yesterday, early exit polls suggested, as voters angry at a spate of recent government scandals used the ballot box to express their dissatisfaction.
The election was the biggest test yet for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office less than a year ago as the nation's youngest prime minister amid soaring support ratings. But his popularity has plunged amid public outrage over millions of lost pension records and scandals that spurred two ministers to resign and another to kill himself.
Early exit poll surveys underscored the reversal of fortunes.
"If projections are correct, we are looking at utter defeat," Hidenao Nakagawa, secretary-general of Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), told reporters at the party's Tokyo headquarters after polls closed.
The loss, however, wouldn't directly threaten the political grip of the LDP, which has ruled Japan in an almost unbroken succession of administrations since it was formed in 1955. The upper house is largely ceremonial, and the LDP keeps control over the lower house, which chooses the prime minister and can override most votes in the upper house.
Abe accepted responsibility for the crushing defeat, but indicated he would not step down as prime minister.
"We tried our best and felt we made some progress, so the results are extremely disappointing," Abe said after the polls closed. "I must push ahead with reforms and continue to fulfill my responsibilities as prime minister."
Nakagawa, meanwhile, was poised to resign to take responsibility for the loss, Kyodo News agency reported.
Opposition leaders immediately jumped on the results as proof the tide had turned against Abe.
"I think there was a lot of hope put on our party," Takaaki Matsumoto, policy chief for the Democratic Party of Japan, said of the exit polls.
Up for grabs were 121 seats in the 242-member upper house of parliament. While last-minute surveys indicated the LDP and its coalition partner the New Komei Party had been regaining ground, exit polls showed the coalition far behind the 64 seats needed to keep its majority.
According to NTV, a major commercial network, the LDP was set to win 38 seats and the New Komei just nine, compared with 59 for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
The results would give the ruling coalition a total of 104 seats, down from the 132 it had before the elections and short of the 122 needed for a simple majority. The Democrats by contrast, would emerge with 111 seats, up from 83.
The network based its forecast on exit polls broadcast shortly after the voting ended last night.
Abe has recently been blamed for mishandling nearly every scandal that has crossed his desk, triggering a stunning reversal of fortune for a ruling party that his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, led to a landslide in the last elections in 2005.