A Rout for Japan's Ruling Party

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David Guttenfelder / AP

Shinzo Abe watches returns to the upper house of the Japanese Parliament.

As he coasted to the Prime Ministership last September, Shinzo Abe often spoke of his grand ambitions to remake Japan's postwar system and enlarge the country's role on the world stage. But after what is shaping up to be a catastrophic performance in Sunday's elections for the Japanese Diet's Upper House, it may be the Japanese public's turn to reshape the administration of Shinzo Abe — if his government survives.

While final tallies won't be counted until Monday morning, early results indicate that the ruling coalition of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the New Komeito party has decisively lost its majority to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). For the first time in the history of the LDP — which has dominated Japanese politics since its founding in 1955 — the Upper House will be controlled by an opposition party, potentially paving the way for Japan's first true two-party system. "This election was entirely a vote of no-confidence for Abe and the LDP/Komeito coalition by the voters," says Minoru Morita, a liberal political commentator. "This is an historic election."

With a DPJ landslide all but assured, the big election night question quickly became whether Abe would resign. Prime Ministers in the past have voluntarily stepped down after similar defeats — most recently, Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1998 — but even as the full extent of the loss sank in Sunday, Abe and his advisers gave every indication that he would try to hold on to power. "We tried our best and felt we made some progress, so the results are extremely disappointing," a bleary Abe told Japanese reporters from LDP headquarters. "I must push ahead with reforms and continue to fulfill my responsibilities as Prime Minister."

Because the ruling coalition still holds a massive majority in the more powerful Lower House, the LDP retains control of the government. Abe could still face pressure to step down from members of his own party, although for now the LDP's most bloodthirsty factions may be content with the departures of some of Abe's closest Cabinet ministers, including LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa, who appeared on TV to take responsibility for the loss and submitted his resignation late Sunday.

The Japanese public may be less forgiving. Before today's poll, Abe's approval ratings were scraping 30%, and many voters said they wanted to send Abe and the LDP a clear message. "Although the Upper House elections are not the election of the ruling party, I want Abe to take it as a defeat and resign," says Masamichi Watanabe, 23, of Wako city, outside Tokyo.

While Abe will likely spend the immediate future quieting dissension within the LDP, the victorious DPJ will face its own difficult choices. With control of the Upper House, the party will be able to block legislation, although the ruling coalition's two-thirds majority in the Lower House will allow it to override most opposition. DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa could choose to throw the government into gridlock, hoping to force Abe to call snap elections. But playing parliamentary chicken is risky: such a move could prompt the public to see the DPJ as obstructionist and incapable of governing, a charge which has stuck to them in the past. (News late Sunday night that the 65-year-old Ozawa wouldn't be appearing in public for a few days because of illness won't help that perception.) Though the DPJ won a landslide victory, the party's approval ratings are barely higher than the LDP's — a sign that voters were less interested in supporting the DPJ than punishing the ruling coalition.

Virtually anything could happen over the coming weeks — one Tokyo TV station has even helpfully spliced its election coverage with dramatizations of the various scenarios, from Abe resigning to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi entering the picture, with look-alike actors playing the roles of Abe and Ozawa. But what is certain is that Abe's vision of a stronger, more assertive Japan is finished for now. In one of the election's biggest surprises, the LDP's usually reliable coalition partner Komeito performed well under expectations — in part, suggests Jun Iio of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, because Komeito's generally pacifist supporters have rejected the party's connection with the conservative Abe.

Whatever happens, most observers agree that Abe and the LDP lost by focusing on revising Japan's pacifist constitution and making education more patriotic while ordinary Japanese were more worried about the country's growing income gap and its faulty pension system. Whether or not Abe resigns, the Japanese government will have to put aside its grander ambitions and make pocketbook issues a priority. "Abe couldn't figure out how to balance the people's interests with his own," says Etsushi Tanifuji, deputy dean of politics at Tokyo's Waseda University. Fortunately for Japan, the democratic system has a way of redressing that imbalance — it's called an election.

With reporting by Yuki Oda/Chigasaki and Toko Sekiguchi and Michiko Toyama/Tokyo