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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Abe's Ruling Party Defeated at Polls

TOKYO -- Japan's ruling party suffered a devastating defeat in parliamentary elections Sunday, as voters angry at a spate of government scandals revolted against embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Sunday's election was the biggest test yet for Abe, who took office less than a year ago as Japan's youngest prime minister amid soaring support ratings. But his popularity has plunged amid public outrage over millions of lost pension records and scandals that spurred two ministers to resign and another to kill himself. Early exit poll surveys underscored the reversal of fortunes.

"If projections are correct, we are looking at utter defeat," Hidenao Nakagawa, secretary-general of Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters at the party's Tokyo headquarters after polls closed.

The loss, however, would not directly threaten the political grip of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan in an almost unbroken succession of administrations since it was formed in 1955. The upper house is largely ceremonial, and the LDP keeps control over the lower house, which chooses the prime minister and can override most votes in the upper house.

But the major defeat shown by exit polls could usher in a period of political gridlock, and spur calls for Abe's resignation.

Abe accepted responsibility for the crushing defeat, but indicated he would not step down as prime minister. He also dismissed speculation he would disband parliament's lower house and call elections there to rekindle his vote mandate.

"We tried our best and felt we made some progress, so the results are extremely disappointing," Abe said after the polls closed. "I must push ahead with reforms and continue to fulfill my responsibilities as prime minister."

Nakagawa, meanwhile, was poised to resign to take responsibility for the loss, Kyodo News agency reported.

Opposition leaders immediately jumped on the results as proof the tide had turned against Abe.

I think there was a lot of hope put on our party," Takaaki Matsumoto, policy chief for the Democratic Party of Japan, said of the exit polls.

Up for grabs were 121 seats in the 242-member upper house of parliament. While last-minute surveys indicated Abe's LDP and its coalition partner the New Komei Party had been regaining ground, exit polls showed the coalition far behind the 64 seats needed to keep its majority.

NTV, a major Japanese commercial network, reported that the LDP was set to win 38 seats and the New Komei just nine, compared with 59 for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

The results would give the ruling coalition a total of 104 seats, down from the 132 it had before the elections and short of the 122 needed for a simple majority. The Democrats by contrast, would emerge with 111 seats, up from 83.

The network based its forecast on exit polls broadcast shortly after the voting ended Sunday night. Other networks had similar projections.

A big loss could increase pressure on Abe to shuffle his Cabinet or even step down. Resigning under such circumstances is unusual, but not without precedent.

In 1998, then-Prime Minster Ryutaro Hashimoto was forced to step down after the Liberal Democratic Party won just 44 seats out of 121, and Sousuke Uno lost his job as prime minister after winning only 36 seats in 1989.