Abe Gamble Set to Pay Off as Polls Show Chance of Bigger Win

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister and President of the Liberal Democratic Party, holds a sign featuring a slogan as he speaks during a debate with other party leaders ahead of the Dec. 14 election at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan, on Dec. 1, 2014. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s gamble on a snap election to renew his mandate to revive the economy is about to pay off, a series of large-scale media polls show.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party may expand its majority in the lower house in the Dec. 14 election, according to polls released by five newspapers today. His coalition with junior partner Komeito will probably keep its “super” two-thirds majority, a margin that allows the chamber to override decisions in the upper house, the surveys show.

Abe has framed the election as a referendum on his economic policies and said he would resign if his coalition couldn’t win a simple majority, a narrower margin than the polls indicate. He called the vote at the same time as delaying a sales-tax increase after a hike in April unexpectedly pushed the economy into recession. A convincing win may embolden him to push ahead with his ambition of strengthening the nation’s military.

“A landslide victory will put wind in his sails and give him and the LDP two additional years to get on with their reform agenda,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “He will take it as vindication of his surprise decision to call a snap election and claim a mandate for enacting his entire agenda” from security policy to nuclear restarts and constitutional revision, he said.

In the projections by the Nikkei, Asahi, Yomiuri, Sankei and Mainichi newspapers, the LDP would win about 300 of 475 seats, compared with 294 before the election.

Leadership Election

A solid victory would allow Abe to fend off any challenges in a leadership election next September, and enable him to stay in office for up to four more years. The coalition would have more than the 317 seats needed for a two-thirds majority should it win close to the projected 300 and Komeito retain its 31 seats.

“Nobody’s going to say we need to get rid of Abe so we can win the next election,” said Steven Reed, professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo. “He’ll be in even more control of the party than he was before.”

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko played down the forecasts today, telling reporters in Tokyo that they were still early surveys.

The yen has weakened and the Topix stock index risen about 70 percent since Abe took office in December 2012. The index rose for a fifth day, adding 0.8 percent today to reach its highest close in almost seven years. On the flip side, real wages have fallen for 16 straight months.

Robby Feldman, head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co. in Tokyo, said in an e-mailed research note today that the polls indicated rising chances of accelerated reform. “Such an outcome would increase the likelihood of Japan exiting deflation permanently,” he said.

Constitutional Change

Polls show voters are more likely to base their choices on the economy and social security than issues like defense and nuclear power, on which they tend to disagree with Abe.

Abe has lifted an effective ban on arms exports and his cabinet has reinterpreted the constitution to allow Japan to defend other countries -- including the U.S., its only formal ally. The government plans to submit bills to parliament next year to expand the role of the Self-Defense Forces as China beefs up its military amid a dispute over the sovereignty of islets in the East China sea.

Should he win a two-thirds majority in the upper house in a 2016 election to match the margin in the lower chamber, Abe would be in a position to change the nation’s pacifist constitution. Even so, he would face difficulties in persuading Komeito, which wants to preserve the charter’s pacifist clause, to back the move.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which had 62 seats before parliament was dissolved, is unlikely to reach its target of 100 seats, the Nikkei said. The DPJ is seeking to emphasize the downside of Abe’s policies, such as the pain inflicted on households and small businesses by the weak yen.

The Nikkei surveyed 81,381 people by phone on Dec. 2-3.

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