TOKYO âÂ Japanese voters braved wind, rain and a rapidly approaching typhoon Sunday to vote in their new government.Â
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 Abeâs Liberal Democratic Party won between 253 and 300 seats and coalition partner Komeito garnered 26 to 37Â seats â potentially enough to maintain the coalitionâs supermajority in the 465-seat House of Representatives.
If the higher estimates turn out to be accurate, it would only further illustrate the political savvy of 63-year-old Abe, who has again proved to be an enduring force in Japanese politics despite scandals and fluctuating approval ratings.
A decisive electoral win will bolster Abeâs hopes in an upcoming leadership contest within his party and potentially cement the prime ministerâs place in history. If Abe serves out a complete four-year term, he will remain prime minister during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and become the countryâs longest-serving prime minister.
More controversially, a supermajority would also help Abe push ahead with a plan to revise Japanâs pacifist constitution and expand the role of the military.
Abe had called the election more than a year early, justifying it by saying that he needed a new mandate for the threat posed by North Korea and to work through the details of a consumption tax increase.Â
Many analysts said Abeâs motive was more opportunistic, however, with the prime minister taking advantage of the disarray of the Democratic Party, Japanâs main opposition party, and a small bump in his approval ratings after a number of scandals earlier this year.Â
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, which soon attracted many members from the Democrats. Koike compared herself to Franceâs Emmanuel Macron in describing her mercurial rise.
Unlike Macron, Koikeâs challenge did not live up to the hype. The governor has opted to not leave her office to contest a seat in parliament â and then she left for a scheduled business trip to France on election day.
NHK suggests that Koikeâs Party of Hope would struggle to come second in the vote, withÂ 38 to 59 seats. Another new party â the anti-amendment Constitutional Democratic Party â looked set to be the second-largest party in the lower house, though still far behind the LDP withÂ 44 to 67 seats.
Speaking to reporters in Paris, Koike said she was disappointed. âIt’s a very harsh result. My remarks and behavior made people feel unpleasant, and that led to the harsh result,â Koike said, according to Kyodo news agency. âI reflect on this and feel I might have been arrogant.âÂ
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 ministerâs 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 economy, led Daniel Sneider of Stanford University to call the vote a âSeinfeld electionâ â 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 coalitionâs supermajority, it will not be aÂ âreal victoryâ for the prime minister.
âIt exposes the fragility of his support,â Nakano said.Â Abe did not win âbecause people enthusiastically support him. People are disaffected and the opposition is divided.â
The bad weather may have helped the LDP, too, with suggestions that the approaching typhoon would keep voters away from polling stations.Â Local media outlets reported that the turnout rate was 31.82 percent half an hour before the polls closed â a drop of 5.9 points from the same time in 2014, though it does not account for early votes.
âIf turnout falls below 2014âs 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,â Harris said.Â
Despite the rain, a number of voters could be found exiting a polling station in Tokyoâs 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 Abeâs government.
âHe uses the North Korea issue as his strategy just to win this election,â said Koizumi, who voted for the Constitutional Democratic Party.
But others said they were voting to back the status quo. âI don’t particularly support Abe, but I do supportâ the LDP, said Hiroki Shinohara, a 54-year-old wholesaler at Tsukiji fish market. âI feel itâs doing whatâs right for Japan, and Japan needs it.âÂ
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.