Polls open in Japan election overshadowed by Shinzo Abe’s killing

Ruling LDP set for strong election showing in upper house election held two days after former prime minister’s assassination.

Voters in Japan are casting their ballots in an upper house election overshadowed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination.

The election on Sunday could see the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) increase its majority.

Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister who remained a dominant presence in the LDP, was gunned down on Friday while delivering a speech in support of a local candidate in the western city of Nara, a killing the political establishment condemned as an attack on democracy itself.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other politicians have insisted the shock killing would not halt the democratic process.

“We must never allow violence to suppress speech during elections, which are the foundation of democracy,” he said on Saturday.

Elections for seats in the parliament’s less powerful upper house are typically seen as a referendum on the sitting government, and the latest opinion polls already pointed to a strong showing for the ruling bloc led by Kishida – an Abe protege.

As the nation mourns, both the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito could gain from a potential wave of sympathy votes, political analysts said.

“The ruling LDP-Komeito coalition was already on course for a solid victory,” James Brady of the Teneo consultancy said in a note. “A wave of sympathy votes now could boost the margin of victory.”

Campaigning was halted on Friday after Abe’s killing, but politicians resumed pre-election activities on Saturday.

There was an increased police presence when Kishida appeared at a campaign event in a city southwest of Tokyo and a metal detection scanner was installed at the venue – an unusual security measure in Japan.

Domestic security

Polls opened at 7am on Sunday (2200 GMT on Saturday) and close at 8pm (1100 GMT). Media said 15.3 percent percent of voters had cast absentee ballots in advance.

A strong showing at the polls could help Kishida consolidate his rule, giving the former banker from Hiroshima a chance to carry out his goal of boosting defence spending.

It might also allow him to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution – something even the hawkish Abe was never able to achieve.

“In the months ahead, the government is certain to seek to strengthen domestic security,” Brady said.

“By undermining the public’s general sense of safety and order, the event could also add further momentum to those key Abe causes like defence build-up and constitutional revision,” he added.

Polls last week showed the LDP winning at least 60 of the 125 seats being contested on Sunday, compared with the 55 it now holds, allowing it to maintain the majority in the chamber that it holds with Komeito.

Reaching 69 seats in the upper house would give the LDP a majority, a threshold that had been seen as a stretch prior to Abe’s killing.

Kishida, once on the more dovish side of the LDP, has shifted towards the right and said parts of the constitution may have elements that “are outdated and lacking”.

Opinion polls show a majority of voters favour greater military strength.

The small, populist Japan Innovation Party, which gained seats in a general election last year, could siphon off votes from the LDP. But since the party also backs constitutional revision, any advances it makes would be likely to bolster the LDP’s reform goals.

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