TOKYO -- Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party suffered a crushing defeat in elections yesterday for the upper house of parliament, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed that he would not step down.
The main opposition Democratic Party seized control of the upper house by a landslide, capturing seats not only in cities but in rural districts that have long been strongholds of the Liberal Democratic Party. The rout was widespread, with household names in the governing party falling one after another before opposition newcomers.
In a devastating rebuke to Abe, angry voters punished him for his mishandling of bread-and-butter issues and for a series of scandals in a government seemingly in disarray. Past prime ministers have resigned in the face of similar losses, but Abe, even before all the votes were counted, tried to head off inevitable questions about his leadership.
"I have to repent for what I have to repent," Abe, who became prime minister in September, told a Japanese television network.
"To pursue reforms, to build a new country, I have to fulfill my duties as prime minister from now on as well," he said.
The defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party will enable opponents to check Abe's legislative agenda. Using parliamentary majorities he had inherited from his popular predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, Abe rammed through laws to instill patriotism in schools, elevate the status of Japan's military and prepare for a referendum on revising the pacifist constitution.
Official election results released today showed Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, losing their majority in the 242-seat upper house. The two retained 103 seats, a 30-seat loss well short of the 122 needed to control the chamber.
The leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan made huge gains in the race for the 121 contested seats. It now has 112 seats, up from 81.
"Last time, I voted for the Liberal Democrats under Koizumi," Takeshige Iijima, 53, said after voting in Yokohama. "I can't support the present Liberal Democratic Party. Japan can't go on under Abe's leadership."
In the face of the voters' wrath, members of Abe's party might start looking for another leader with more popular support as they turn their attention to the next election. Although Abe, now 52, was relatively young and inexperienced, party members chose him as leader in September on the premise that he, like Koizumi, would lead them to electoral victories.
Under Japanese law, the lower house of parliament, which Abe's party firmly controls, chooses prime ministers. So a loss in the upper house would not immediately force his resignation.
Past prime ministers, however, have taken responsibility for defeats in the upper house by resigning.
With opinion polls predicting a tide against Abe's party, the Liberal Democrats had braced for a defeat. Some members of his party, including Kohei Tamura, a lawmaker seeking a third term in a race that he had seemed assured of winning just a few weeks ago, tried to survive by openly attacking Abe. Tamura, who represented the Kochi prefecture in western Japan, lost yesterday.
Abe's approval ratings, once higher than 60 percent, plummeted as he appeared out of touch with voters' anxieties about everyday issues, especially a national pension record-keeping problem that could jeopardize the benefits paid out in what is a rapidly aging society. Instead, Abe pursued a nationalist agenda, saying until recently that this election's main theme was revising Japan's pacifist constitution and repeating his trademark, if vague, promise of turning Japan into "a beautiful country."