New Delhi: Voting for Japan's Upper House of Parliament began earlier on Sunday. Opinion polls suggest that the country's ruling coalition could lose heavily.
The coalition, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, has been involved in several scandals and a nationwide pensions debacle.
The coalition may not be ousted because of its majority in the lower house, but a defeat in this election could lead to policy deadlocks. Nearly 105 million people are eligible to vote in the election.
Up for grabs were 121 seats in the 242-member upper house of parliament. While last-minute surveys indicated Abe's LDP and its coalition partner the New Komei Party had been regaining ground, exit polls showed the coalition far behind the 64 seats needed to keep its majority.
According to NTV, a major commercial network, the LDP was set to win only 38 seats, compared with 59 for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The network based its forecast on exit polls broadcast shortly after the voting ended Sunday night.
''The results appear to be very severe,'' Liberal Democratic Party deputy chief Nobuteru Ishihara said at party headquarters.
Sunday's election was the biggest test yet for Abe, who took office less than a year ago as Japan's youngest prime minister amid soaring support ratings. His popularity, however, has plunged amid public outrage over millions of lost pension records and scandals that spurred two ministers to resign and another to kill himself.
Opposition leaders immediately jumped on the results as proof the tide had turned against Abe.
''I think there was a lot of hope put on our party,'' Takaaki Matsumoto, policy chief for the Democratic Party of Japan, said of the exit polls.
A loss wouldn't immediately threaten the political grip of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan in an almost unbroken succession of administrations since it was formed in 1955.
The upper house is largely ceremonial, and the LDP would keep control over the lower house, which chooses the prime minister and can override most votes in the upper house.
But a big loss could put Abe under pressure to step down, possibly ushering in an era of political gridlock.
Resigning under such circumstances is rare, but not unprecedented.
In 1998, then-Prime Minster Ryutaro Hashimoto was forced to step down after the LDP won just 44 seats out of 121, and Sousuke Uno lost his job as prime minister after winning only 36 seats in 1989. Even Abe resigned as secretary-general of the party in 2004, when the Liberal Democrats won 49 seats, two short of their goal.
(With AP inputs)