TOKYO — Japan’s governing party and its coalition partner scored a major victory in a parliamentary election Sunday imbued with meaning after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe amid uncertainty about how his loss may affect party unity.
The Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito raised their combined share in the 248-seat chamber to 146 — far beyond the majority — in the elections for half of the seats in the less powerful upper house.
With the boost, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stands to rule without interruption until a scheduled election in 2025.
That would allow Kishida to work on long-term policies such as national security, his signature but still vague “new capitalism” economic policy, and his party’s long-cherished goal to amend the U.S.-drafted postwar pacifist constitution.
A charter change proposal is now a possibility. With the help of two opposition parties supportive of a charter change, the governing bloc now has the two-thirds majority in the chamber needed to propose an amendment, making it a realistic possibility. The governing bloc already has secured support in the other chamber.
Kishida welcomed the major win but wasn’t smiling, given the loss of Abe and the hard task of unifying his party without him. In media interviews late Sunday, Kishida repeated: “Party unity is more important than anything else.”
He said responses to the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising prices will be his priorities. He said he will also steadily push for reinforcing Japan’s national security as well as a constitutional amendment.
Kishida and senior party lawmakers observed a moment of silence for Abe at the party election headquarters before placing on the whiteboard victory ribbons next to the names of candidates who secured their seats.
Abe, 67, was shot while giving a campaign speech in the western city of Nara on Friday and died of massive blood loss. He was Japan’s longest-serving political leader over two terms in office, and though he stepped down in 2020 was deeply influential in the LDP while heading its largest faction, Seiwakai.
“This could be a turning point” for the LDP over its divisive policies on gender equality, same-sex marriage and other issues that Abe-backed ultra-conservatives with paternalistic family values had resisted, said Mitsuru Fukuda, a crisis management professor at Nihon University.
Japan’s current diplomatic and security stance is unlikely to be swayed because fundamental changes had already been made by Abe. His ultra-nationalist views and pragmatic policies made him a divisive figure to many, including in the Koreas and China.
Following the assassination, Sunday’s vote took on new meaning, with all of Japan’s political leaders emphasizing the importance of free speech and defending democracy against acts of violence.
Abe’s killing may have resulted in sympathy votes. Turnout on Sunday was around 52 percent, up about 3 points from the previous 48.8 percent in 2019.
“It was extremely meaningful that we carried out the election,” Kishida said Sunday. “Our endeavor to protect democracy continues.”
On the final day of campaigning Saturday, party leaders avoided fist-bumps and other friendly gestures in close contact with the public — a sign of tightened security following Abe’s assassination during a campaign rally.
Abe’s body has been returned to his home in Tokyo’s upscale Shibuya, where many mourners, including Kishida and top party officials, paid tribute. His wake and funeral are expected in coming days.
On Sunday, the suspect accused of his murder was transferred to a local prosecutors’ office for further investigation, and a top regional police official acknowledged possible security lapses allowed the gunman to get close to Abe and fire his homemade gun at him.
The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told investigators he acted because of Abe’s rumored connection to an organization that he resented, police said, but that he had no problem with the former leader’s political views.
Abe stepped down two years ago, blaming a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis he’d had since he was a teenager. He said he regretted leaving many of his goals unfinished, including revising Japan’s war-renouncing constitution. While some conservatives consider the post-World War II charter a humiliation, the public is more supportive of the document.