By Hiroko Tabuchi
Monday, July 30, 2007
TOKYO, July 29 -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed Sunday to stay in office despite leading his scandal-stained ruling coalition to a humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections.
Exit polls showed Abe's Liberal Democratic Party losing the majority it held with its coalition partner in the upper house, a stunning reversal of fortune for a party that has controlled Japan almost without interruption since 1955.
The leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan made huge gains, according to the exit polls.
It would be unusual for a prime minister to step down after a defeat in the upper house, but calls for Abe's resignation from within his party were expected to grow.
Looking grim and chastened, the prime minister dismissed questions about whether he should resign.
"I must push ahead with reforms and continue to fulfill my responsibilities as prime minister," he said at his party's headquarters. "The responsibility for this utter defeat rests with me."
His ruling party maintains control of the lower chamber, which chooses the prime minister, and Abe dismissed opposition calls for an election for the lower house to test his mandate.
"The nation has spoken very clearly," Naoto Kan, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters. "Naturally, our sights are on the lower house and our final goal is a change in government."
Exit polls by major television networks showed the ruling party and its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party, emerging with 104 seats -- a 28-seat loss that left it far short of the 122 needed to control the house. The Democratic Party appeared set to win 111 seats, up from 83. Official results were not expected until early Monday.
But his honeymoon was short-lived.
In the first in a series of scandals, Administrative Reform Minister Genichiro Sata stepped down in December over charges of misusing political funds. In May, Abe's agriculture minister killed himself following allegations he misused public money. The new agriculture minister became embroiled in a separate funds scandal.
The government was severely criticized again last month when Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma suggested that the 1945 U.S. nuclear bombings of Japan were justified. Public outcry led to his prompt departure.
Perhaps the final straw for voters was Abe's brushing off warnings by the opposition late last year that pension records had been lost. That inaction came back to haunt him in the spring, when the full scope of the records losses emerged. About 50 million claims had been wiped out.
Some unconventional candidates from outside the two major parties also fared badly Sunday. Alberto Fujimori, the former authoritarian leader of Peru; Yuko Tojo, granddaughter of the executed wartime general who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor; and popular inventor Dr. Nakamats were all headed for defeat, according to projections.