Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc was headed for a big win in Sunday's election, bolstering his chance of becoming the nation's longest serving premier and potentially reenergising his push to revise the pacifist constitution.
Abe's conservative coalition was on track to win at least 312 seats in the 465-seat parliament with only a handful left to call, according to public broadcaster NHK, putting the blue-blooded nationalist on course to become Japan's longest-serving leader.
It would also means Abe's coalition would retain its two-thirds "supermajority". That would allow Abe to propose changes to pacifist Japan's US-imposed constitution that forces it to renounce war and effectively limits its military to a self-defence role.
The hawkish prime minister said the crushing election victory had hardened his resolve to deal with the crisis in North Korea, which has threatened to "sink" Japan into the sea and fired two missiles over its northern islands.
"As I promised in the election, my imminent task is to firmly deal with North Korea. For that, strong diplomacy is required," stressed Abe, who has courted both US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The main issue is whether he'll be able to pursue his Abenomics policy" - Ian Neary, Professor of Japanese politics at Oxford
'Very severe result'
Millions of Japanese braved torrential rain and driving winds to vote as a typhoon bears down on the country, with many heeding warnings to cast their ballots early.
"I support Abe's stance not to give in to North Korea's pressure," said Yoshihisa Iemori as he cast his ballot in a rainswept Tokyo.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) benefited from a weak and splintered opposition, with the two main parties facing him created only a matter of weeks ago.
Support for the Party of Hope founded by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike fizzled after an initial blaze of publicity and it was on track to win around 49 seats, the NHK projection suggested.
Speaking from Paris where she was attending an event in her capacity as leader of the world's biggest city, a sullen-faced Koike told NHK she feared a "very severe result".
"As the person who launched the party, I will take my responsibility."
The new centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party fared slightly better than expected but still trailed far behind Abe with 54 seats.
"The LDP's victory is simply because the opposition couldn't form a united front," political scientist Mikitaka Masuyama from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, told AFP.
"A crushing victory for Abe" - Jean-Yves Colin, Japan expert at Paris' Asia Centre.
'Deepen constitution debate'
Abe, who has in the past been criticised for an arrogant attitude towards voters, vowed to face the challenge posed by the victory "humbly."
He struck a cautious note on possible revisions to the US-imposed constitution, saying that he would "deepen" debate in parliament on the divisive issue but not seek to ram anything through.
"I don't plan to propose (changes) via the ruling bloc alone. We'll make efforts to gain support from as many people as possible."
The short election 12-day campaign was dominated by the economy and the global crisis over North Korea.
Nationalist Abe stuck to a hardline stance throughout, stressing that Japan "would not waver" in the face of an increasingly belligerent regime in Pyongyang.
Despite the sabre-rattling from North Korea, many voters said reviving the once-mighty Japanese economy was the top priority, with Abe's trademark "Abenomics" growth policy failing to trickle down to the general public.
The three-pronged combination of ultra-loose monetary policy, huge government spending and structural reform has catapulted the stock market to a 21-year high but failed to stoke inflation and growth has remained sluggish.
"Neither pensions nor wages are getting better... I don't feel the economy is recovering at all," said 67-year-old pensioner Hideki Kawasaki.
Although voters turned out in their millions to back Abe, support for the 63-year-old is lukewarm and surveys showed his decision to call a snap election a year earlier than expected was unpopular.
Voter Etsuko Nakajima, 84, told AFP: "I totally oppose the current government. Morals collapsed. I'm afraid this country will be broken."
"I think if the LDP takes power, Japan will be in danger. He does not do politics for the people," added the pensioner.
Japanese voters talk about Shinzo Abe and the economy
'I'm quite disappointed'
Koike briefly promised to shake up Japan's sleepy political scene with her new party but she declined to run herself for a seat, sparking confusion over who would be prime minister if she won.
In the end the 65-year-old former TV presenter was not even in Japan on election day.
"I thought that I would vote for the Party of Hope if it's strong enough to beat the Abe administration. But the party has been in confusion ... I'm quite disappointed," said 80-year-old pensioner Kumiko Fujimori.
The campaign was marked by a near-constant drizzle in large parts of the country and rallies frequently took place under shelter and a sea of umbrellas.
But this did not dampen the enthusiasm of hundreds of doughty, sash-wearing parliamentary hopefuls, who have driven around in minibuses pleading for votes via loudspeaker and bowing deeply to every potential voter.
Click here to read an interview by FRANCE 24's Julie Dungelhoeff and Yuka Royer with Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Temple University in Tokyo, about the election.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2017-10-22