TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's ruling camp looks likely to lose a July 29 upper house election, newspaper surveys showed on Monday, an outcome that threatens to stall Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative agenda and could cost him his job.
The surveys by the Asahi and Sankei newspapers were the latest to forecast a loss for Abe's coalition after government bungling of pension records and a series of gaffes and scandals that led ministers to resign and one to commit suicide.
"There is no reason to think that the trend will change this week," said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Tokyo's Keio University.
Abe, 52, took power last September pledging to boost Japan's global security profile and rewrite its pacifist constitution.
Those changes would be welcome to the United States, Japan's closest security ally, but rank well below bread-and-butter issues such as pensions with most voters.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, the New Komeito, need a combined total of 64 seats to keep their majority in the upper house, where half of the 242 seats are up for grabs. The New Komeito is aiming for 13 seats.
Based on a July 19-21 survey, the conservative Sankei newspaper forecast that the ruling camp would get between 48 and 61 seats, with the most likely scenario that it would take about 55 seats, including 44 for the LDP.
But with many voters undecided the result remains uncertain.
The coalition would not be ejected from power if it lost the election since it controls the more powerful lower house.
If the coalition falls short of a majority by just a few seats it can probably keep its grip on the upper house by wooing independents or members of tiny parties. But a big defeat would make it hard to enact laws, put pressure on the once-popular Abe to resign, and usher in an era of policy paralysis.
A big defeat for the ruling bloc could trigger selling of shares and the yen while boosting Japanese government bonds, but many market players believe any reaction would be short-lived.
STAY OR GO?
"The direction of reforms is firmly in place and nobody expects that to be reversed. Fund managers aren't seeing a big impact on economic fundamentals over the long term," said the head fund manager at a Japanese asset management firm.
Fighting strong headwinds, Abe has recently sought to woo voters by promising continued economic growth and reforms -- attacked as too weak by critics -- aimed at breaking ties between business and civil servants that have long fostered corruption.
But recent polls, which put support for Abe's cabinet at or below the critical 30 percent line, suggest the strategy is not working.
A survey by the Mainichi newspaper published on Sunday forecast an even worse showing for the ruling camp, with the
number of seats it is seen winning ranging from 38 to 53.
If the LDP fails to hold on to at least 40 seats, Abe will come under serious pressure to resign, but political insiders say he will try hard to cling to his post.
Yoshimi Watanabe, Abe's minister in charge of administrative reform, dismissed predictions that the LDP would win fewer than 40 seats and said Abe was determined to stay whatever the result.
"I'm telling people that whatever the outcome of the upper house election, the Abe administration will not step down," he told a luncheon for media and business executives.
But without a ruling camp majority in the upper house, controversial legislation would be almost impossible to enact.
"Rejected bills can be sent back to the lower house and passed by a two-thirds majority, but that is quite difficult," Sone said.
Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 66, a political veteran who shares much of Abe's policy agenda but is known for his love of "manga" comics and for verbal gaffes, is widely seen as a frontrunner to replace Abe.
Other potential candidates include the more dovish former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, 62, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, 71, both of whom could benefit from not being tainted by membership of Abe's cabinet, analysts said.
(Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka, Chikako Mogi and Yuzo Saeki)