TOKYO (AP) — Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party stormed back to power in parliamentary elections Sunday after three years in opposition, exit polls showed, signaling a rightward shift in the government that could further heighten tensions with rival China.
The victory means that the hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will almost certainly get a second chance to lead the nation after a one-year stint in 2006-2007. He would be Japan's seventh prime minister in six-and-a-half years.
Public broadcaster NHK's exit polls projected that the LDP, which ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era until it was dumped in 2009, 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 results were a sharp rebuke for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan, reflecting widespread unhappiness for its failure to keep campaign promises and get the stagnant economy going.
A serious-looking Abe characterized the win as more of a protest vote against the DPJ than an endorsement of his party.
"I think the results do not mean we have regained the public's trust 100 percent. Rather, they reflect 'no-votes' to the DPJ's politics that stalled everything the past three years," he told NHK. "Now we are facing the test of how we can live up to the public's expectations, and we have to answer that question."
The LDP will stick with its long-time partner New Komeito, backed by a large Buddhist organization, to form a coalition government, party officials said. Together, they will probably control about 320 seats, NHK projected — a two-thirds majority that would make it easier for the government to pass legislation.
With Japan stuck in a two-decade slump and receding behind China as the region's most important economic player, voters appeared ready to turn back to the LDP.
The new government will need to quickly deliver results ahead of upper house elections in the summer. To revive Japan's struggling economy, Abe will likely push for increased public works spending and lobby for stronger moves by the central bank to break Japan out of its deflationary trap.
The ruling Democrats, which won in a landslide three years ago amid high hopes for change, captured less than 100 seats, exit polls indicated, down sharply from its pre-election strength of 230.
"This election result does not mean a popular mandate for the LDP, but that voters decided the DPJ had to go," said Masahiro Matsumura, a politics professor at St. Andrews University in Osaka. "Apparently voters felt they didn't have any alternative to the LDP, since the other parties failed to organize competent, experienced candidates."
Still, some voters said they supported the LDP's vows to build a stronger, more assertive country to answer increasing pressure from China and threats of North Korean rocket launches. 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. "I hope Mr. Abe will stand tall."
The LDP may also have benefited from voter confusion over the dizzying array of more than 12 parties, including several news ones, and their sometimes vague policy goals.