After taking Japan’s helm for the second time in December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has had three good years, leading his Liberal Democratic Party to victory in two consecutive national elections, getting highly unpopular laws enacted without dooming his Cabinet, and winning three more years as chief of the conservative party until September 2018.
As Abe enters the second half of his term, he will face a major challenge in 2016: the Upper House election.
For Abe, the summer contest will be a fight for his and his revered grandfather Nobusuke Kishi’s long-cherished goal of revising the war-renouncing postwar Constitution, observers said.
Abe looks eager to leave his name in history by getting an amendment passed — something no one before him has ever achieved.
“Winning the Upper House election is a huge issue for Abe,” said Koji Nakakita, professor of political science at Hitotsubashi University. “If (the LDP) wins a landslide victory, the possibility of revising the Constitution will be increased.”
An election win would also mean he can complete his LDP presidency in 2018 without having to call another national poll, Nakakita pointed out.
This would mean Abe would be the third-longest-serving prime minister — if you include his first short stint between 2006 and 2007 — in modern Japanese history following Eisaku Sato (1964-1972) and Shigeru Yoshida (1946-47, 1948-1954).
“I believe he is up for doing everything he can to grab the win (even the) ¥30,000 (earmarked for) each low-income pensioner,” the professor said, referring to the cash handout Abe included in the ¥3.5 trillion extra budget for the current fiscal year. “After all, Abe came back to power because he wanted to revise the Constitution.”
To garner votes ahead of the election, Abe moved quickly to divert attention from the contentious security laws his administration enacted amid massive protests at the Diet in September, by hammering out economic measures following its passage.
In September, Abe announced another “three arrows” as part of his deflation-fighting “Abenomics” policy, that sounded more like targets: a 20 percent increase in gross domestic product to ¥600 trillion by around 2020, more day care centers to lift the birthrate, and an increase nursing care facilities for the elderly.
“As in past elections, (Abe’s campaigns) will be all about Abenomics until the election, and once it’s over, Abe’s true colors will emerge,” Nakakita said.
“Everyone knows this.”
Half the Upper House’s 242 seats will be up for grabs — the same ones that were contested in 2010, when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power.
To hold a national referendum on revising the Constitution, the LDP-Komeito ruling bloc must have two-thirds majorities in both the 475-seat Lower House and 242-seat Upper House.
Since it already controls two-thirds of the House of Representatives, it only needs to clinch more than 162 seats in the Upper House.
Of the 121 seats up for grabs, 57 were in the hands of the ruling bloc and 77 were uncontested as of Dec. 28. If they can grab the same number of seats they won in the 2013 election, they can gain control of around 63 percent of the chamber. Adding seats from smaller, like-minded conservative parties, including Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) and Nihon no Kokoro wo Taisetsu ni suru To (Party for Japanese Kokoro), will give it a chance to break the two-thirds barrier, experts said.
But Masaki Taniguchi, a professor of politics at the University of Tokyo, said whether Abe will actually push for a referendum on the Constitution is a different story because the prospects of winning the crucial majority needed to amend the charter are dim.
According to an NHK poll in April 2015, nearly 28 percent of respondents said the charter needs to be revised and about 25 percent said it wasn’t necessary. But about 43 percent said they neither support nor oppose a constitutional revision.
Even if the ruling camp succeeds in acquiring two-thirds of the Upper House, holding a national referendum would be a gamble for Abe, Taniguchi said.
LDP lawmakers say the first amendments proposed would be relative softies, such as those to strengthen the public’s environmental rights or to give the prime minister supreme power in emergencies.
But the public would see such proposals as the first step toward changing war-renouncing Article 9, Taniguchi said.
Considering how much energy the ruling camp expended to enact the security laws, which allow the Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense and broaden their missions overseas, revising the Constitution won’t be easy, he said.
“I believe Abe is hoping to retain his political influence after his current term (ends in 2018). Considering that, it would be a tough question for him — whether to (attempt) to revise the Constitution during the last part of his tenure,” Taniguchi said.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, is working to unite the splintered opposition camp so it can field joint candidates in single-seat constituencies to prevent the Abe camp from grabbing control of the chamber.
But experts said the possibility of the opposition camp winning big in the Upper House election and taking a majority is quite small, which means the Abe administration will probably still be in power after the poll.
Nakakita of Hitotsubashi said the opposition camp has failed to dispel public concerns over its fierce internal strife.
Last year, Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), now the second-largest opposition party, split after disagreeing whether to tie up with Abe’s ruling camp. The DPJ also experienced internal strife over whether to merge with the pro-opposition faction of Ishin.
One concern for the LDP remains the economy, experts said.
Given the Abe administration has been backed by a relatively good economy, once that goes awry, the positive flow may turn negative, they said.
When the economy sours, public frustration might spill out, reviving divisive issues raised by the security legislation and Japan’s financial reconstruction policies, they said.