Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's coalition has won a clear majority, exit polls show. Abe saw the victory as a validation of his economic program, though critics feared it signaled a shift to a conservative agenda.
Media projected that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, would hold 135 seats in the upper house of parliament following the election. The main opposition Democratic Party would hold just 59 seats.
Abe's LDP fell short of a majority on its own, projected to win only 64 seats on top of its 50 uncontested seats.
"We've argued that our economic policies aren't mistaken, and the public gave us their support. People now want to feel the benefits. The economy indeed is improving," Prime Minister Abe said at LDP headquarters late on Sunday after learning the early results.
Japan goes to the polls every three years to cast ballots for half of the upper house's 242 seats. Parliamentarians serve six-year terms.
By clinching the upper house, the coalition now controls both chambers. The increase in power clears the way for the conservative premier to implement an economic policy aimed at lifting Japan out of its 15 years of deflation.
The "Abenomics" reforms would include an easing of restrictions hiring and firing employees, participation in a trans-Pacific free trade pact currently involving 11 countries, and a consumption tax increase.
"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 the public broadcaster NHK.
The new government must now decide whether to raise the 5 percent sales tax to 8 percent next April.
Abe's grip on power worries critics
The election results are expected to end the political deadlock which began in 2007 with the devastating defeat of the LDP. The loss had forced Abe to resign during his first term as premier. In the time between his departure and his return late last year, Japan saw five prime ministers, almost none of whom held the office for more than 12 months.
Abe's economic policy has pushed down the value of the yen and triggered a rise in the stock market, but critics view the reforms as a tactic to gain support, which would ultimately allow him to implement his conservative agenda.
The premier has also proposed bolstering the country's military presence, which would require an amendment to Japan's pacifist constitution. Critics fear the effects of such a move on neighbors China and South Korea, both of which are engaged in territorial disputes with Japan.
Sunday's vote attracted only about 53 percent of eligible voters, raising the question of whether the decisive victory came from a disenchanted public seeking stability, rather than from one which overwhelmingly supports Abe's conservative ideology.
kms/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)