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Abe vows conservative changes as coalition sweeps Japan's parliament

Economic changes will top Shinzo Abe's to-do list after his weekend victory in upper house polls tightened his grip on power. The Japanese prime minister's coalition won a clear majority in Sunday's vote.

Media projected that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, would hold 135 seats of the upper house of parliament's 242.

The prime minister's party should win 65 seats, which together with the 50 it held before the elections gives it 115, just short of an outright majority on its own. The main opposition Democratic Party should lose 27 seats and now hold just 59.

"We've won the public's support for decisive and stable politics so that we can pursue our economic policies, and we will make sure to live up to the expectations," Abe told public broadcaster NHK on Sunday after he was projected to win based on exit polls and early results.

Abe appears to have new leeway to advance conservative goals. No side has controlled both houses of parliament in recent years. A divided government has had difficulty passing legislation, and voters fed up with the gridlock and high leadership turnover appeared willing to opt for the perceived safety of the LDP, which has ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era.

'The twisted parliament'

Abe has long sought to revise Japan's social contract and constitution and bolster the military, which could further strain ties with neighbors China and South Korea, both embroiled in territorial disputes with the country. He said that voters had supported the LDP to push his party's economic policies and he would make that the government's top priority.

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Free hand for Japanese premier

"Now that we got rid of the twisted parliament, the LDP is going to face a test of whether we can push forward the economic policies so that the people can really feel the effect on their lives," Abe told NHK.

A look at the turnout would call into question some of Japanese voter's perceived enthusiasm, however. Only about 52 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, the third-lowest turnout since the end of World War II. The upper house has elections for half of its 242 seats every three years, and this year 433 candidates competed for the 121 seats.

The fine print

Abe faces the decision this fall on whether to follow through on raising the sales tax next April from 5 percent to 8 percent, a move many worry would derail the country's economic recovery. The LDP's "Recover Japan" platform calls a strong economy, strategic diplomacy and unshakable national security in alliance with the United States, which allows for the US to station 50,000 troops in the country.

The prime minister's party also favors revising the country's pacifist constitution, drafted by the US after World War II, to give Japan's military a larger role. This message has alarmed the country's neighbors, but apparently resonated with some voters troubled by territorial disputes with China and South Korea and widespread distrust of regional powers. Abe upset both countries and other neighbors by saying he hopes to revise a 1995 apology by his country for its wartime aggression and questioning the extent to which Japan forced women elsewhere in Asia to submit to sex with its soldiers before and during World War II.

Domestically, revising the constitution would require two-thirds approval by both houses of parliament and a national referendum. Polls show that the public has less interest in such matters than in reviving the economy and rebuilding areas of northeastern Japan devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

"It is a crucial step forward for us to take the offensive" against the LDP, said Kazuo Shii, the leader of the Japanese Communist Party, which won eight seats on Sunday, its biggest gain since 1998. "Citizens are concerned that the LDP will get out of control," he added.

mkg/rc (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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