Japan Votes in Key Election

TOKYO (AP) -- Japanese voted Sunday in the shadow of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that brought heightened security as party leaders avoided mingling with crowds and delivered messages of upholding democracy and free speech during campaigning the day before.

Exit polls for the election for the parliament's upper house showed Abe's governing party certain to win a major victory, possibly propelled by what is seen as a wave of sympathy votes in a country still reeling from the shock of Friday's brazen shooting.

Also Sunday, police in western Japan sent the alleged assassin to a local prosecutors' office for further investigation. A top regional police official acknowledged possible security lapses that allowed the attacker to get so close and fire a bullet at the still-influential former Japanese leader.

Exit polls by NHK public broadcaster and other media showed the governing Liberal Democratic Party was certain to secure a single majority of 125 seats, or half of the upper house, the less powerful of the two chambers. It's a major boost for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who stands to rule without interruption until a scheduled election in 2025.

In the wake of Abe's assassination, Sunday's election had a new meaning, with all political leaders emphasizing the importance of free speech and their pledge not to back down on violence against democracy.

Security was also heightened. On the final day of campaigning Saturday, party leaders avoided fist-bumps -- a COVID-19 alternative to handshakes -- or other close-proximity friendly gestures they used to enjoy with the public.

Mourners visited the LDP headquarters to lay flowers and pray for Abe as party officials prepared for vote counting inside.

"We absolutely refuse to let violence shut out free speech," Kishida said in his final rally in the northern city of Niigata on Saturday. "We must demonstrate that our democracy and election will not back down on violence."

Abe was shot in Nara on Friday and airlifted to a hospital but died of blood loss. Police arrested a former member of Japan's navy at the scene and confiscated a homemade gun. Several others were later found at his apartment.

The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told investigators he acted because of Abe's rumored connection to an organization that he resented, police said, but had no problem with the former leader's political views. The man had developed hatred toward a religious group that his mother was obsessed about and that bankrupted a family business, according to media reports, including some that identified the group as the Unification Church.

Abe's body, in a black hearse accompanied by his wife, Akie, returned to his home in Tokyo's upscale Shibuya, where many mourners, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and top party officials, paid tribute. His wake and funeral are expected in coming days.

Nara prefectural police chief Tomoaki Onizuka on Saturday said that Abe's assassination was the "greatest regret" in his 27-year career. He said problems with security were undeniable, that he took the shooting seriously and will review the security procedures.

Japan is known for its strict gun laws. With a population of 125 million, it had only 21 gun-related criminal cases in 2020, according to the latest government crime paper. Experts say, however, some recent attacks involved use of consumer items such as gasoline, suggesting increased risks for ordinary people to be embroiled in mass attacks.

Even after stepping down as prime minister in 2020, Abe was highly influential in the LDP and headed its largest faction. His absence could change the power balance in the governing party that has almost uninterruptedly ruled postwar Japan since its 1955 foundation, experts say.

"This could be a turning point" for the LDP over its divisive policies on gender equality, same-sex marriages and other issues that Abe-backed ultra-conservatives with paternalistic family values had resisted, said Mitsuru Fukuda, a crisis management professor at Nihon University.

Japan's current diplomatic and security stance is unlikely to be swayed because fundamental changes had already been made by Abe. His ultra-nationalist views and pragmatic policies made him a divisive figure to many, including in the Koreas and China.

Abe stepped down two years ago blaming a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis he'd had since he was a teenager. He said he regretted leave many of his goals unfinished, including the issue of Japanese abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia, and a revision of Japan's war-renouncing constitution that many conservatives consider a humiliation, because of poor public support.

Abe was groomed to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. His political rhetoric often focused on making Japan a "normal" and "beautiful" nation with a stronger military through security alliance with the United States and bigger role in international affairs.

He became Japan's youngest prime minister in 2006, at age 52. But his overly nationalistic first stint abruptly ended a year later, also because of his health, prompting six years of annual leadership change.

He returned to office in 2012, vowing to revitalize the nation and get its economy out of its deflationary doldrums with his "Abenomics" formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. He won six national elections and built a rock-solid grip on power.