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Voters look on at a campaign event for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Playing safe, Abe targets ruling bloc majority in Japan election

To fend off critics, Japanese prime minister needs stand-alone LDP majority

| Japan

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is intent on declaring victory if his ruling coalition holds on to a simple majority in the lower house election Oct. 22, though clearing this relatively low bar is unlikely to silence his detractors.

In theory, his Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner Komeito together need a minimum 233 seats. Such a majority serves as "the finish line" in an election fought over a voter mandate, Abe said during a television appearance Tuesday.

By this logic, the ruling bloc could lose nearly 90 seats and still claim a victory. Though the two parties are fielding only 385 of the 1,180 candidates vying for the chamber's 465 seats, 324 of them enjoy the advantage of having served in the last parliament.

Strength in numbers

But in practical terms, a simple majority is a "fairly low bar" to set, according to many within the LDP. In calling a snap election at this time, Abe intends to reunify his party after a stinging loss in July's Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. Merely defending the ruling bloc's majority without maintaining an overwhelming presence in the Diet's lower house will not suffice.

In September, internal LDP polls showed the coalition winning more than 280 seats in a hypothetical election. If Komeito can retain the 34 seats it held in the last parliament, LDP officials reckon the ruling party can afford to lose 30 to 40 of the 290 seats it previously held.

If the LDP alone can hold 261 seats, the party could chair and form majorities on all standing committees in the lower house, giving Abe a firm handle on the Diet's agenda. Such a showing also could help the ruling bloc maintain the two-thirds supermajority required to propose changes to Japan's pacifist constitution. Even if the LDP and Komeito fall short of that target, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's pro-revision Kibo no To, or Party of Hope, and the conservative opposition Japan Innovation Party might fill the gap.

On the fence

But a weaker showing could rattle the Abe government even if the ruling bloc itself retains power. The prime minister said Tuesday that the race for a majority would be "tight."

Many expect at least some losses for the LDP. The lower house itself will shrink by 10 seats to 465, and the ruling coalition's supermajority achieved in a decisive 2014 victory may have energized the opposition.

Any result letting the LDP and Komeito keep their majority would signal that the electorate wants "political stability," Abe claimed Tuesday, adding that "infighting within in the LDP" would not be acceptable -- a clear attempt to nip post-election rebellion in the bud.

Yet some in the LDP could try to bring down Abe if the party loses 50 seats or more, let alone its standalone majority. And many think the prospect of Abe winning a third consecutive term as LDP chief next autumn would become less certain.

Koike could exploit such internal chaos and attempt to team with the LDP's anti-Abe wing, members believe. A wholesale alliance could result if the LDP were to pick former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, a contrarian close to Koike, or Seiko Noda, the sitting communications minister who had considered challenging Abe in a past party race, as a new chief to replace Abe. The Party of Hope also could back one such LDP lawmaker when the new lower house selects the prime minister, as Koike's party has not yet said whom it would back for the position.

What if?

If the ruling bloc loses its majority outright, Abe has said he is prepared to resign as prime minister. Hope is committed to ousting Abe from power. "Lend us your votes and let us end the Abe regime," Koike urged supporters during a rally Tuesday.

That goal looks less realistic now than when Koike initially announced plans for national politics. Hope has incurred a public backlash in recent weeks for letting only conservative members of the former top opposition Democratic Party join its ranks. Her party has prepared to field only 235 candidates, leaving a razor-thin margin for error. Left-leaning Democrats are launching their own campaigns in certain districts under the newly formed Constitutional Democratic Party.

Even if Abe is forced out, forming a government will require opposition parties to put aside their differences and piece together a 233-seat coalition. Hope can expect little help in this arena from the Constitutional Democrats or the Japanese Communist Party, given the groups' fundamental differences on matters such as national security and revising the constitution. In the end, Koike's party seems likely to team up with Japan Innovation, or even the LDP and Komeito, which will remain in control of the upper house.


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