Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President Shinzo Abe (C).jpg
Japanese Prime Minister and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President Shinzo Abe (C) reacts as he puts red rose marks on the names of the party's victorious candidates in the Upper House election in celebration at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, 10 July 2016.
Photograph: EPA/KIYOSHI OTA

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito won a major victory in upper house elections Sunday, preliminary results and local media exit polls showed.

The ruling coalition retained a majority in the House of Councillors, broadcaster NHK reported, despite Abe's government's failure to achieve long-term economic growth.

"I'm relieved as we cleared our target" of 61 of the 121 seats in the chamber up for grabs in the race, Abe told NHK. The premier believed the result reflected "people's opinions urging us to move the economy forward strongly."

"We'd like to carry out bold and comprehensive economic measures," the premier said.

The LDP could win a single-party majority in the upper chamber of parliament, NHK reported.

Despite the clear victory, Abe's two cabinet ministers lost in the prefectures of Fukushima and Okinawa.

In Fukushima, Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki was defeated by the democratic Party's Teruhiko Mashiko, while Shimajiri Aiko, state minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, suffered a crushing defeat in Okinawa.

It was still uncertain whether the ruling coalition and like-minded parties would be able to capture a two-thirds majority in the upper chamber of parliament.

The premier needs the support of two-thirds of both chambers of parliament in order to call a national referendum on changing the constitution. The coalition already holds a majority in the House of Representatives, the more powerful lower house.

The LDP has pushed for reform of the constitution since it was created in 1955, and drafted proposed amendments in 2005 and 2012. Abe has said that the constitution limits Japan's ability to offer military support to its allies.

However, such reforms are not popular among Komeito supporters.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi told NHK Sunday, "We don't need to revise Article 9 in the immediate future."

Article 9 of the charter prohibits the use of force to settle international disputes.

Local media expected the main opposition Democratic Party to win around 30 seats, far below its 43 contested seats.

The party was formed in March through the merger of the Democratic Party of Japan and Japan Innovation Party.

"The Democratic Party has been further fragmented since the party leader [Katsuya] Okada decided to forge an electoral alliance with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP)," said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst.

The Communist Party, which has been drawing voters frustrated with Abe's government, is expected to gain more seats.

Every three years Japan's upper house holds elections for half of its 242 seats. This year a total of 389 candidates are running for the 121 seats.

Of the 106.6 million registered voters in Japan, about 16 million people cast their ballot in early polls before Sunday, up 23.5 per cent from the 2013 upper house elections, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

The elections are the first in Japan to be open to 2.4 million people aged 18 and 19, after an electoral law amendment recently reduced the minimum voting age from 20.

Analysts said, however, young people seldom discuss politics and social issues due to the education system, which emphasizes rote memorization for exams instead of encouraging students to express themselves.

"Unfortunately, not many young people go to the polls," said Takao Toshikawa, founder and editor-in-chief of Insideline, a bi-weekly publication in Tokyo.

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