TOKYO — Japan's ruling coalition was a clear winner in Sunday's parliamentary elections, preliminary results and Japanese media exit polls indicated, paving the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to push ahead with his economic revival policies, but also possibly changing the nation's postwar pacifist constitution.
Half of the seats of the less powerful upper house were up for grabs. There had been no possibility for a change of power because the ruling coalition, headed by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, already controls the more powerful lower house, but the balloting was a key gauge of how much support Abe's coalition has among the public.
The opposition had called on voters to show their rejection of Abe's position to have a more assertive military role for Japan.
According to the exit polls, the Liberal Democrats won 57 to 59 seats among the 121 that were contested. Its coalition partner Komeito won about 14 seats.
Combined with other conservative politicians, the coalition may win a two-thirds majority in the upper house, which would be critical to propose a referendum needed to change the constitution. Japanese broadcaster NHK reported that the Liberal Democrats may clinch the majority on their own.
Final results of the balloting aren't expected until early Monday.
Abe showed up before TV cameras at party headquarters, all smiles, to pin red flowers, indicating confirmed wins, next to his candidates' names written on a big board.
"I am honestly so relieved," he told NHK, promising new government spending to help wrest the economy out of the doldrums in a "total and aggressive" way.
He declined to give the amount for the spending. He also said discussions should start on changing the constitution to work out details.
With their pro-business policies, the Liberal Democrats have ruled Japan almost continuously since World War II, and until recently enjoyed solid support from rural areas. The few years the opposition held power coincided with the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters that devastated northeastern Japan. The opposition, however, fell out of favor after being heavily criticized for its reconstruction efforts.
Robert Dujarric, professor and director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo, said the win reflected voters' disenchantment with the opposition, rather than their excitement about Abe's policies.
"The public is old. It doesn't want change," he said. "It doesn't want what Japan really needs — more structural reform, less money for the old and more funding for families and children."
The Japanese constitution, written by the United States after Japan's defeat in World War II, limits its military to a self-defense role, although Japan has a well-equipped modern army, navy and air force that work closely with the U.S., Japan's most important ally. Many members of Japan's military don't anticipate becoming involved in overseas wars, expecting that their work will be limited to disaster relief.
But some Japanese agree with Abe's views on security because of growing fears about terrorism, the recent missile launches by North Korea and China's military assertiveness.
Sunday's was the first major election since Japan lowered the voting age from 20 to 18, potentially adding 2.4 million voters. Although "manga" animation and other events were used to woo young voters, results from early and absentee voting pointed to a low turnout, highlighting how many young Japanese are disillusioned with mainstream politics.
Masses of people have come out against nuclear power since the March 2011 Fukushima catastrophe. But that has not weakened Abe in recent elections, although he has made clear that he is eager to restart reactors that were idled after the nuclear disaster, the worst since Chernobyl, and make atomic energy a Japanese export.
Abe had repeatedly stressed during his campaign that his "Abenomics" program, centered on easy lending and a cheap yen to encourage exports, is still unfinished, and that patience is needed for results.
"I voted hoping the economy of the country gets better," Jiro Yonehara, a "salaryman," as company employees are called, said after emerging from a voting booth. "I think the economy is still hitting bottom, and I hope it gets better even just a bit so that my life gets easier."
Tetsuro Kato, professor of politics at Waseda University, said the election showed an opposition in shambles. He said some members of the opposition may defect to the ruling coalition, as some agree with Abe's views. The opposition leadership will likely have to resign to take responsibility for the election defeat, as their platform failed to appeal to the public, he said.
Even so, Abe won't rush to change the constitution, hoping for better timing because the recent strengthening of the yen, a minus for exports, and concerns about global growth are weighing on the economy, according to Kato.
Yukio Edano, the legislator who ran the campaign for the main opposition Democratic Party, acknowledged that winning back people's trust has been difficult, but said the public agreed with his party's message that Abenomics wasn't working for regular people.
"But people felt we did not offer enough of an alternative," he told NHK TV.