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Japan PM Abe seeks personal redemption in upper house election

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, speaks to voters atop a campaign van in Tokyo
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, speaks to voters atop a campaign van in Tokyo

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a man with a mission: to erase the bitter stain of defeat and attain personal political redemption with a victory in a national election this month.

With his Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition (LDP) back in power since December and all but assured of a handsome win in a July 21 poll for parliament's upper house, Abe might forgiven for slowing his pace a bit.

But allies and critics agree the 58-year-old heir to an elite political family will not rest until the votes are counted and his ruling bloc is in control of the chamber, reversing a humiliating defeat that led to his resignation six years ago.

"I guess history is a turn of Fortune's wheel. The LDP led by Prime Minister Abe suffered a crushing defeat in the last (2007) upper house election, which led us to lose power," Abe's close ally Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference last week as the official campaign commenced.

"We must resolve the split in parliament through this upper house election. By doing so, Prime Minister Abe can finally get his revenge from the defeat of six years ago."

Upper house lawmakers serve six-year terms and half the seats are contested every three years, so the seats to be filled in the coming election are those that were at stake in 2007.

When he succeeded popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September 2006, Abe - then aged 52 - had high support ratings. Ten troubled months later, his popularity eroded by scandals in his cabinet and public outrage over lost pension records, Abe led the LDP to its worst election defeat since it was founded in 1955.

He clung to power for another two months before suddenly quitting in the face of a deadlock in parliament, where the opposition-controlled upper house was blocking a key bill, and ill health due to a flare up of his chronic ulcerative colitis.

Two years and two more LDP prime ministers later, the LDP lost power to the novice Democratic Party of Japan in an historic 2009 lower house poll.

"The setback then has been deeply embedded in my heart," Abe told a news conference after parliament ended its session late last month. "I cannot lose the upper house election."

Abe spent much of the next five years regaining his health and repairing his reputation with the support of equally conservative lawmakers and business executives. By 2012, he was ready for another run at the premiership. He secured a rare second chance as prime minister after the LDP and its junior partner swept aside the Democrats in a December lower house election.

TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED

Abe has been in campaign mode ever since.

A string of overseas visits, frequent interviews, domestic photo op events and use of social media including Facebook have kept him constantly in the public eye.

The non-stop schedule prompted some close aides to urge Abe to take a break and even caused some concern that exhaustion might lead to a gaffe just when everything looks rosy.

"The prime minister feels that he was responsible in the past for losing the upper house election and for the ensuing situation. He has tasked himself with not resting until the upper house election is won," Economics Minister Akira Amari told a news conference last month.

Abe is showing no signs of taking victory for granted. Recalling how media had forecast an LDP win in a 1998 upper house poll, only to see the party lose after then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto flip-flopped over income tax cuts in the final days, Abe on the weekend warned against complacency.

"If we are not on our guard until the end, we will lose," he said on a Sunday TV talk show with other party leaders.

Abe insists that once the election is won, he will not be distracted from his drive to revive the economy with a mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and structural reforms, including deregulation.

But some fear that with the stronger position, he will shift gears to focus on a conservative agenda, including revising the post-war pacifist constitution to legitimize the military and bolstering pride in Japanese traditions rather than dwelling on Japan's wartime past.

"Every country has pride in its history so what is important is to have mutual respect," he said on the Sunday TV show.

The conservative, hawkish Abe imbibed many of his political ideals at the knee of his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime cabinet minister who served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960.

Kishi was forced to resign without achieving his goal of revising the U.S.-drafted constitution due to a furor over a U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that he rammed through parliament.

Abe will face one test on August 15, when many of his rightwing backers would like him to pay his respect at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied Tribunal are honored with war dead.

"Mr. Abe has an internal struggle between his head - the pragmatic realist - and his heart," said Columbia University political science professor Gerry Curtis, adding that Abe's emotions incline him to explain away Japan's wartime actions.

"As long as his head is in control, he's OK. But if he says what he really thinks, then he gets in real trouble."

(Editing by Neil Fullick)

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