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Exit polls suggest victory for Japan's ruling party in parliamentary election

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Exit polls suggest victory for Japan's ruling party in a parliamentary election that has been overshadowed by the assassination two days ago of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It's hardly surprising that his party, which has run Japan for most of the past seven decades, is on track to win. But Abe's death may have boosted voter turnout and shifted the focus of the election. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following the story from Seoul and joins us now. Welcome, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what's the latest on the results?

KUHN: Well, based on exit polls, public broadcaster NHK is predicting that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, and its coalition partner, the smaller Komei party, are going to claim more than half of the 125 seats up for grabs in the upper house of Parliament. And voter turnout appears to be more than the last upper house vote three years ago, but turnout then was below 50%. I don't think we can say that people are super enthusiastic about this election. It does look, though, like the ruling bloc will even hang on to its two-thirds majority, and that gives them a shot at amending Japan's constitution. The main aim there is to ease post-war restraints on Japan's military and the country's ability to wage war. And that issue was one of Shinzo Abe's big unfinished projects, as well as one that the LDP has pursued nearly - for nearly seven decades.

RASCOE: What issues are voters focused on in this election?

KUHN: This is the first election since Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took office about nine months ago, so it's seen as sort of a referendum on his performance. One big thing on many voters' minds is surging inflation, especially food and energy prices. Now, Japan has been plagued by deflation for decades. Abe tried to create inflation by printing lots of money and doing lots of government spending, and Abe's successors have mostly stuck with that policy. But the LDP's grip on power has been so strong and the opposition parties have been so divided that many voters really don't feel they have much of a choice. And that's been one reason for low voter turnout.

RASCOE: Now, Abe's assassination has certainly focused attention on domestic security. Like, how is that playing out?

KUHN: Well, we've heard a lot of reports in recent days about Japan's low crime rate, its gun control laws, its low-security election campaigning. But still, people are really shocked that a man with an improvised shotgun could, you know, sneak up on Abe from behind and shoot him not once, but twice without being spotted or stopped by police or bodyguards. The head of police in Nara city, where this happened, admitted that security was flawed. And he said he felt responsible, but he's not going to step down. Security for the election has been tightened with metal detectors and bag checks at Prime Minister Kishida's campaign stops.

RASCOE: More details have come out about the alleged assassin. What's new on that front in just the 30 seconds we have left?

KUHN: Well, police have found equipment in the suspected assassin's home to make several guns, gunpowder and bombs. One really important thing is that the police say that this may have been linked to a religious group who the killer felt Abe was connected to. And there are a lot of conspiracy theories going around and a lot of fingers pointing at foreign groups in Japan.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Thank you so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.