Shinzo Abe, left, the president of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party,… (Tomohiro Ohsumi, Bloomberg )
TOKYO — The conservative party that dominated postwar Japan was returned to power, after a three-year absence, in a landslide election victory Sunday that will result in hawkish Shinzo Abe returning as prime minister.
Abe, 58, who served in the post once before, is likely to pursue a tougher stance toward China and prevent his nation from abandoning nuclear energy.
The Liberal Democratic Party was projected by national broadcaster NHK to win 294 out of 480 seats in Japan's lower house, while an ally, the New Komeito Party, had a projected 31. That would give them the two-thirds majority needed to overrule the upper house, perhaps breaking deadlocks that have long stymied Japanese governments.
The Liberal Democrats held a near-monopoly on power in Japan from 1955 to 2009, when they were beaten by the Democratic Party of Japan. This time, the Democratic Party was projected to win only 57 seats. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda resigned as head of the party Sunday night hours after the polls closed, calling the election results a "disappointment."
The remarkable comeback of the conservative establishment reflects the high level of national anxiety about economic stagnation and falling behind China.
"They're more experienced and are a better fit at leading," said Takashi Yamada, a 38-year-old office worker in Tokyo, explaining why he voted for the Liberal Democrats this time. Last time, by contrast, he opted for a third party opposing nuclear power.
The Liberal Democrats' return could exacerbate tensions over contested islands that have become a lightning rod for nationalist outbursts in Asia. Abe supports revisions in Japan's post-World War II constitution to loosen limits on the military and has promised a strong defense of Japanese sovereignty.
"A good Japan-China relationship is in the national interest for both countries. Both sides need to recognize that. I think there is a problem that China lacks that understanding," Abe said on Japanese television after the polls closed.
Among a proliferation of third parties competing in the election, the most successful was the ultranationalist Japan Restoration Party headed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and controversial former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, which was projected to win 51 seats. It was Ishihara who set in motion the current standoff with China with a plan to buy and nationalize a contested island chain called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.
"There is a very good chance that the island disputes with China and South Korea will worsen now that the nationalistic Liberal Democrats are back in control," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo-based Sophia University.
Many political analysts, however, believe that Abe's supporters will drag him back to the center after the election, with economic concerns trumping foreign relations.
Abe has called for making exports more competitively priced and increasing public works spending to bolster the economy.
Some scholars also pointed out that this election was not so much about single issues such as nuclear energy or China, but more about broad disappointment in the Democratic Party. The left-of-center party made history in 2009 when it broke the grip the Liberal Democrats had held on Japan since 1955. But it failed to deliver on its pro-consumer agenda and was associated with an unpopular consumption tax.
"They didn't follow their election pledges," said Shinichi Nishihara, a 42-year-old truck driver.
The electorate also questioned the ruling party's competence in the handling of the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear plant disaster, even though it was the Liberal Democrats who had been the boosters of nuclear power.
"I think the Japanese public just feels stuck. The economy has not improved. China has surpassed them, and problems with a low birthrate and dwindling population are yet to be resolved," said Tetsuro Kato, a political scientist at Waseda University.
Traditionally, under Japan's political system, the head of the political party that takes a majority stake in the lower house becomes the prime minister. Abe is expected to take the reins as new prime minister next week. He would be the sixth prime minister in a country with an unusually short cycle of rotating leaders — lasting only a year on average — since Junichiro Koizumi left office in 2006.
The telegenic Abe comes from a wealthy and politically powerful family; his grandfather served as prime minister, and his father was foreign minister.
Abe studied political science at Seikei University and USC. In 2006, he became the youngest postwar Japanese prime minister, but he resigned after a year amid political scandals and chronic poor health. He suffers from ulcerative colitis.
Many voters still hold that resignation against him.
"I was disappointed by the Liberal Democrats for choosing a leader who failed once," said Kaori Hamada, 65, of Tokyo, a former supporter of the Liberal Democrats who voted for a progressive party this time.
Political analysts said the lopsided election results are not a mandate for Abe so much as a rejection of the incumbents.
"This is more about punishing the Democratic Party," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of politics at Hokkaido University.
Even Abe told Japanese news media Sunday night, "I don't think that voters are trusting us more. Rather, I think voters are saying 'no more' to the confusion the Democratic Party has caused."
Special correspondent Nagano reported from Tokyo and Times staff writer Demick from Beijing.