The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party won a clear majority in Japanese parliamentary elections Sunday, media exit polls showed, signaling a rightward shift in the government that could further heighten tensions with rival China.
Public broadcaster NHK projected that the LDP, a conservative party that ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era until it was dumped in 2009 elections, won between 275 and 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament. Official results were not expected until Monday morning. Before the election, it had 118 seats.
The victory almost certainly means that the hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will get a second chance to lead the nation after a one-year stint in 2006-2007 that ended with him abruptly quitting due to a digestive ailment he says is no longer a problem.
Even though the LDP will have enough seats to govern alone, it will stick with its long-time partnership with the Komeito, a Buddhist-backed party, to form a coalition government, said Yoshihide Suga, deputy secretary general of the LDP. Together, they would control about 320 seats, NHK projected.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which won in a landslide three years ago amid high hopes for change, suffered a crushing defeat, capturing less than 100 seats, exit polls showed, down sharply from its pre-election strength of 230.
The results were a rebuke to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democrats for failing to deliver on a series of campaign pledges and for doubling the sales tax to 10 percent to meet growing social security costs as the population ages and shrinks.
With Japan stuck in a two-decade slump and receding behind China as the region's most important economic player, people appear to be turning back to the LDP, which led Japan for so many decades.
The LDP's vows to build a stronger, more assertive country to answer increasing pressure from China and threats of North Korean rocket launches also resonated with voters. Abe has repeatedly said he will protect Japan's "territory and beautiful seas" amid a territorial dispute with China over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
"I feel like the LDP will protect Japan and restore some national pride," Momoko Mihara, 31, said after voting for the Liberal Democrats in the western Tokyo suburb of Fuchu.