Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question during a news conference following his party's defeat on Sunday.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question during a news conference following his party's defeat on Sunday. Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday vowed to stay in office, despite a humiliating election that saw his Liberal Democratic Party suffer its worst defeat in a half-century and could have implications for relations with the U.S.
In a vote for half of the seats in the upper house of parliament, the electorate voiced its outrage over a series of political scandals and the loss of millions of pension records - a serious blunder in this rapidly-ageing country - stripping the LDP of its majority in the 242-seat body.
"To pursue reforms, to build a new country, I have to fulfill my duties as prime minister from now on," Abe said, acknowledging, nonetheless, that a Cabinet reshuffle was in order.
But the vote is a sign the electorate is angry. It was a terrible defeat for the prime minister a mere 10 months after he took office, succeeding the charismatic and popular Junichiro Koizumi.
The LDP remains in control of the lower house and thus still controls the government, but Sunday's defeat was a clear sign of Abe's tumbling fortunes and a dramatic reversal of the stellar support he enjoyed when he took office less than a year ago.
By Monday morning, newspaper editorials were urging Abe to resign.
"Voters gave a clear failing mark," the Asahi newspaper said. "The prime minister should face the results seriously and step down."
Phil Deans, a professor of Politics and East Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, said Abe's mission to make Japan more assertive on the world stage is out of touch with the electorate.
"His nationalist agenda just doesn't have that much appeal. Most Japanese people don't care that much about revising the constitution and changing Japan's international role," Deans said.
The Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ, now the largest party in the upper house for the first time in half a century, celebrated its victory. Democratic politician Yukio Hatoyama spelled out the vote's significance.
"Every national election is a credibility test for the government," he said. The LDP "should understand the answer was 'no.'"
The DPJ now controls the legislative agenda and can block government bills, ushering in a period of political gridlock. According to Koichi Nakano, an associate professor of political science from Sophia University, the opposition control of the upper house could cause more friction over Japan's alliance with the U.S., which had been especially close under Abe and Koizumi.
"The Abe government followed clearly the line adopted by Koizumi who was a very staunch ally of the U.S. This is likely to be somewhat modified by the opposition party, with critics of Japanese policy in Iraq likely to surface," he said.
Deans said tension could ensue over matters from the economy to defense cooperation and international affairs.
"The DPJ has taken a position of offering more protection to Japanese consumers and producers, so it will be even more difficult to reform the Japanese market, and open it up to competition, which is a key issue for the U.S.," he said.
"On defense policy, we'll see a scaling back of Japan's support for Washington's international agenda," Deans added.
And another symbolic vote is looming - one that Tokyo's ambassador to Washington has warned could undermine bilateral ties.
As early as Monday, the U.S. Congress could vote on whether to demand an official Japanese apology for forcing women to serve as sex slaves in World War II.
Earlier this year, Shinzo Abe's denial of government coercion sparked uproar and built support for the resolution; the vote is likely to be yet another embarrassment for the Abe.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press