TOKYO - Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in a landslide election victory Sunday after three years in opposition, according to early returns, signaling a rightward shift in the government that could further heighten tensions with China, a key economic partner as well as rival.
The victory means that the hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will get a second chance to lead the nation after a one-year stint in 2006-2007. He would be Japan's seventh prime minister in 61/2 years.
In this first election since the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters, atomic energy ended up not being a major election issue even though polls show about 80 percent of Japanese want to phase out nuclear power.
Public broadcaster NHK's tally showed that the LDP, which ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era until it was dumped in 2009, won 293 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, with nearly all early results in. Official results were not expected until Monday morning. LDP, the most pro-nuclear power party, had 118 seats before the election. A new, staunchly antinuclear power party won just eight seats.
In the end, economic concerns won out, said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University. "We need to prioritize the economy, especially since we are an island nation," he said. "We're not like Germany. We can't just get energy from other countries in a pinch."
The results were a sharp rebuke for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan, reflecting widespread unhappiness for its failure to keep campaign promises and get the stagnant economy going during its three years in power.
With Japan stuck in a two-decade slump and receding behind China as the region's most important economic player, voters appeared ready to return to the LDP.
A serious-looking Abe characterized the win as more of a protest vote against the DPJ than a strong endorsement of his party.
"I think the results do not mean we have regained the public's trust 100 percent. Rather, they reflect 'no votes' to the DPJ's politics that stalled everything the past three years," he told NHK. "Now we are facing the test of how we can live up to the public's expectations, and we have to answer that question."
The ruling Democrats, who won in a landslide three years ago amid high hopes for change, captured just 57 seats, according to interim results, down sharply from preelection strength of 230. Among the casualties were eight cabinet ministers, the most to lose jobs in an election since World War II, Kyodo News agency reported.
Japanese TV stations compile their own tallies by adding all local government interim vote counts and are generally highly accurate. The central government does not provide a grand total until all the numbers are official the next day.
Calling the results "severe," Noda told a late-night news conference he was stepping down as party chief to take responsibility for the defeat.
"I apologize deeply for our failure to achieve results," he said. "It was the voters' judgment to our failure to live up to their expectations."
The LDP will stick with its long-time partner New Komeito, backed by a large Buddhist organization, to form a coalition government, party officials said. Together, they will control more than 320 seats, NHK projected - a two-thirds majority that would make it easier for the government to pass legislation.
Noda said a special parliamentary session would be held before year's end to pick a new prime minister. As leader of the biggest party in the lower house, Abe will almost certainly assume that post.