TOKYO — Japanese voters braved wind, rain and a rapidly approaching typhoon Sunday to vote in their new government.
But as polling closed at 8 p.m. local time, early indications suggested that this new government would look remarkably like the old one.
Public broadcaster NHK is predicting that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won between 253 and 300 seats and its coalition partner Komeito 26 to 37 seats — potentially enough to maintain the coalition’s supermajority in the 465-seat House of Representatives.
If the higher estimates are accurate, they seem to mark another sign of the political savvy of 63-year-old Abe, who has once again proved an enduring force in Japanese politics despite numerous scandals and fluctuating approval ratings.
A decisive electoral win will bolster Abe’s hopes in an upcoming leadership contest within his Liberal Democratic Party and potentially cement the prime minister’s place in history. If Abe serves out a complete four-year term, he will remain prime minister for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and become the longest-serving Japanese prime minister ever.
More controversially, a supermajority would also help Abe push ahead with a plan to revise his country’s pacifist constitution and expand the role of Japan’s military.
Abe had called the snap election over a year before he was mandated to, justifying the early vote by saying he needed a new mandate for the threat posed by North Korea and to work through the details of a consumption tax increase.
Many analysts said that Abe’s motive was in fact more opportunistic, however, with the prime minister taking advantage of the disarray of the Democratic party, Japan’s main opposition party, and a small bump in his own approval ratings after a number of scandals earlier this year.
For a while, it seemed like a gamble. After the vote was announced, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, a staunchly conservative former LDP member, formed her own party that soon attracted many members from the disbanded Democrats. Koike compared herself to France’s Emmanuel Macron for the speed of her mercurial rise.
Unlike Macron, Koike’s challenge did not live up to the hype. The governor herself has opted to not leave her office to contest a seat in parliament — and then she left for a scheduled business trip to France on election day.
NHK suggests that Koike’s Party of Hope would struggle to come second in the vote, with 38 to 59 seats. Another new party — the anti-amendment Constitutional Democratic Party — looked set to be the second largest party in the lower house, though still far behind the LDP with 44 to 67 seats.
Speaking to reporters in Paris, Koike said she was disappointed. “It’s a very harsh result. My remarks and behavior made people feel unpleasant and that led to the harsh result,” Koike said, according to Kyodo news agency. “I reflect on this and feel I might have been arrogant.”
The LDP has long dominated postwar Japanese politics. For many Japanese voters, Abe’s leadership represents stability after years of short-lived governments before he returned to the prime minister’s office in 2012.
In contrast with recent elections in the United States and Europe, there were relatively few divisive issues on display in Japan ahead of the vote. This, plus the relative good health of the Japanese economy, led Daniel Sneider of Stanford University to dub the vote a “Seinfeld election” — or an election about nothing.
However, some analysts suggest that the weakness of the opposition may mask discontent with Abe and a lack of support for many of his policies. Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University, said that if Abe is ultimately unable to retain his coalitions supermajority, it will not be a “real victory” for the prime minister.
“It exposes the fragility of his support,” Nakano said. He did not win “because people enthusiastically support him. People are disaffected and the opposition is divided.”
The bad weather may have helped the LDP, too, with suggestions that the approaching typhoon would keep voters away from polling stations. Local media outlets reported that the turnout rate was 31.82 percent half an hour before the polls closed — a drop of 5.9 points from the same time in 2014, though it does not account for early votes.
“If turnout falls below 2014’s record [of low voter turnout], it could only strengthen the likelihood of a big victory for the ruling coalition, particularly in some of the more closely contested seats in Tokyo,” Harris said.
Despite the rain, a number of voters could be found exiting a polling station in Tokyo’s cosmopolitan Roppongi neighborhood on Sunday morning. Nobue Koizumi, a 67-year-old retired translator, said she had felt compelled to vote because of fears about the security policy of Abe’s government.
“He uses the North Korea issue as his strategy just to win this election,” said Koizumi, who voted for the Constitutional Democratic Party.
But others said they were voting because of support for the status quo. “I don’t particularly support Abe, but I do support” the LDP, said Hiroki Shinohara, a 54-year-old wholesaler at Tsukiji fish market. “I feel it’s doing what’s right for Japan and Japan needs it.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.