- Associated Press - Sunday, December 16, 2012

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in a landslide election victory 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 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 6½ 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, the party 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 during its three years in power.

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.

A serious-looking Mr. Abe characterized the win as more of a protest vote against the DPJ than a strong 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 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.

Calling the results “severe,” Mr. Noda told a late-night news conference he was stepping down to take responsibility for the defeat.

“I apologize deeply for our failure to achieve results,” he said. “It was the voters’ judgment to our failure to live up to their expectations during our three years and three months of leadership.”

The LDP will stick with longtime 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.

Mr. Noda said a special parliamentary session would be held before year’s end to pick a new prime minister. As leader of the biggest party in the lower house, Mr. Abe almost certainly will assume that post.

The new government will need to quickly deliver results ahead of upper house elections in the summer. To revive Japan’s struggling economy, Mr. 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.

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. Mr. 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.”

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