TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's backers are trying to set the stage for him to keep his job if his ruling bloc gets trounced in a parliamentary election on Sunday, but analysts wonder whether the strategy will work.
Media surveys have forecast a loss for Abe's coalition after his support rates slid to around 30 percent, half the level he enjoyed when he took office in September, on anger over bungled pension records and a series of gaffes and scandals that led two ministers to resign and one to commit suicide.
Faced with the prospect that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and junior partner, the New Komeito, will lose their upper house majority, a chorus of government and party leaders have shrugged off the notion that he should step down after a defeat.
They have also dismissed past precedent -- such as Ryutaro Hashimoto's swift decision to resign after the LDP suffered a stunning defeat in a 1998 upper house election -- as a guide.
Not everyone, though, is convinced by the official logic.
"They are talking about Abe staying on, but looking at public opinion, his support rate is likely to keep falling and one has to wonder whether he can hang on," said Iwao Osaka, a research associate at the University of Tokyo.
The LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito, need a 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.
The ruling camp will not be ejected from government if it loses in the upper house since it has a strong grip on the more powerful lower chamber. But laws would be hard to enact, threatening policy paralysis.
"The question is, what happens next?", said Robert Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo.
"We could be looking at gridlock."
A survey by TBS broadcaster aired on Wednesday showed the ruling bloc was in danger of losing its majority and the LDP alone might win fewer than 40 seats, far short of the 55 or so within the grasp of the main opposition Democratic Party.
Such bleak forecasts might mean that anything better ends up looking good for Abe and the LDP, some analysts said.
"Abe will try to hang on to the very end. It depends on the size of the defeat, but they are trying to lower expectations," said Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University professor.
Some anti-LDP voters, meanwhile, might stay home since the party's defeat appears to be a foregone conclusion. "So the outcome could be better than expected," Nakano said.
Even so, Abe could have trouble hanging on to his job given his low support rate and worries among lower house LDP lawmakers who will have to face voters by late 2009, if not sooner.
Forty-eight percent of respondents to an Internet survey by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper published on Wednesday said Abe should quit if his coalition loses its majority, while only 26 percent thought he should stay.
"The majority of the people think that Abe lacks leadership ability," Osaka said.