Japan's ruling camp looks likely to lose a July 29 upper house election, newspaper surveys showed on Monday, an outcome that threatens to stall Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative agenda and could cost him his job.
The surveys by the Asahi and Sankei newspapers were the latest to forecast a loss for Abe's coalition after government bungling of pension records and a series of gaffes and scandals that led ministers to resign and one to commit suicide.
There is no reason to think that the trend will change this week, said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Tokyo's Keio University. There is nothing to prompt a sudden improvement for the (ruling) Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Abe, 52, came to power last September pledging to boost Japan's security profile and rewrite the country's 1947 pacifist constitution.
Those changes would be welcome to the United States, Japan's closest security ally, but rank well below bread-and-butter issues such as pensions with most voters.
The LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito, would not be ejected from power if they lost the election since they control parliament's more powerful lower house.
The LDP and the New Komeito need a combined total of 64 seats to keep their majority in the upper house, where half of the 242 seats are up for grabs. The New Komeito is aiming for 13 seats.
Based on a July 19-21 survey, the conservative Sankei newspaper forecast that the ruling camp would get between 48 and 61 seats, with the most likely scenario that they would take about 55 seats, including 44 for the LDP.
But it said that with many voters still undecided the result remains uncertain.
If the coalition falls short of a majority by just a few seats it can probably keep its grip on the upper house by wooing independents or members of tiny parties. But a big defeat would make it hard to enact laws, put pressure on the once-popular Abe to resign, and usher in an era of policy paralysis.
STAY OR GO?
Fighting strong headwinds, Abe has recently sought to woo voters by promising continued economic growth and reforms -- attacked as too weak by critics -- aimed at breaking ties between business and civil servants that have long fostered corruption.
But recent polls suggest the strategy is not working.
A survey by the Mainichi newspaper published on Sunday forecast an even worse showing for the ruling camp, with the
number of seats they were seen winning ranging from 38 to 53.
The Sankei, meanwhile, said support for Abe's cabinet slipped below the critical 30 percent line to 29.1 percent, the lowest since he took office.
A July 21-22 survey by the Asahi newspaper showed the main opposition Democratic Party still gaining ground, while its leader, Ichiro Ozawa, got higher marks than Abe for leadership.
If the LDP fails to hold on to at least 40 seats, Abe will come under serious pressure to resign, but political insiders say he will try hard to stay if the party gets 40 or more seats.
Either way, controversial legislation will be almost impossible to enact, analysts said. No matter who is prime minister, the situation in the upper house won't change, Sone said. Rejected bills can be sent back to the lower house and passed by a two-thirds majority, but that is quite difficult.
Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 66, who shares much of Abe's policy agenda and is known for his love of manga comics and for verbal gaffes, is widely seen as a frontrunner to replace Abe.
Other potential candidates include the more dovish former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, 62, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, 71, both of whom could benefit from not being tainted by membership of Abe's cabinet, analysts said.
(Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka)
(Editing by Michael Watson; Reuters Messaging: