By one measure, next month’s Upper House election is probably Japan’s most important national poll ever.
The race, which kicked off Wednesday, could pave the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make history: to revise the U.S.-drafted Constitution nationalists see as a humiliating remnant of Japan’s World War II defeat. Since its inception nearly 70 years ago, the national charter has not been tweaked once.
Although Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, Komeito, already hold a two-thirds majority in the 475-seat Lower House, they have yet to achieve this in the 242-seat Upper House. Abe wants to change this by winning big in the July 10 election, allowing pro-amendment forces to control two-thirds in both chambers — a scenario that would give him leverage to call a national referendum on constitutional revisions.
“This is a very significant election that determines the fate of the Constitution,” Keio University political science professor Yoshiaki Kobayashi said.
In the triennial election, 121 of the 242 seats are up for grabs.
Of the uncontested half, pro-revision forces including the LDP, Komeito, Osaka Ishin no Kai and Nihon no Kokoro wo Taisetsu ni Suru Kai (Party for Japanese Kokoro) already hold a combined 84 seats. This means the four parties will need to win at least 78 seats in the election to reach the two-thirds threshold of 162 seats. Currently, the four parties hold 61 of the 121 seats that are up for grabs.
Hiroshi Miura, an election analyst who runs Tokyo-based election consulting firm Ask Co., predicts the 78-seat win is well within reach for Abe, with the four parties in favor of constitutional revisions likely to win 79 seats combined, according to his estimate as of Monday. That would bring total pro-amendment seats in the two chambers to 163, compared with the pre-election figure of 145.
Aside from the 78-seat benchmark, Abe announced earlier this month that the LDP-Komeito coalition must obtain 61 seats in order to declare victory.
Political observers including Kobayashi and Miura speculate the goal, or a majority of the 121 seats up for grabs, is a certainty for Abe, who enjoyed a spike in popularity after successfully inviting U.S. President Barack Obama to make a historic visit to Hiroshima last month.
Winning 61 seats, Kobayashi said, would then give Abe good reason to claim he has public support to revise the Constitution, as well as for his Abenomics program and other pet policies, such as efforts to boost tourism.
But while he has made no secret of his desire to amend the Constitution, any mention of revision has been almost conspicuously missing from the leader’s pre-campaign speeches nationwide. The LDP also relegated its pledge to revise the supreme law to the very bottom of its platform document.
Commentators say Abe may fear that highlighting the divisive topic could split voter support for the LDP and that he wants to play it down as much as possible until after the election.
But if he wins, he will likely quickly turn to pursuing his lifelong ambition, claiming the victory represents public endorsement for constitutional change.
“I think it’s a question of whether we’ll be fooled three times,” Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University and member of citizens’ group Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism, told a news conference in Tokyo last week.
Abe has resorted to similar subterfuge before, Nakano pointed out, when his camp won the July 2013 Upper House election on a pledge to revive the economy, only to steamroll a contentious state secrecy bill through the Diet in December that year. Not a single mention of that bill was made during the election campaign, Nakano said.
When Abe dissolved the Lower House to call a snap election in November 2014, he similarly trumpeted his Abenomics policy. It was only months later that the ruling coalition rammed unpopular security bills — which critics at the time said would see Japan slide back into its wartime militarism — through the Diet.
“Again, Abe is trying to make it look like the election is all about the economy,” Nakano said.
“It’s undemocratic and sneaky of him not to discuss with voters the possible danger of constitutional revisions head-on.”
There is no question Abe is gung-ho about winning the race. And while many polls indicate the odds are in his favor, his victory still hinges on how the LDP-Komeito coalition will fare in 32 single-member electoral districts.
It is in those constituencies that the opposition camp has already pulled off an unprecedented feat: striking an electoral tie-up and successfully fielding united candidates opposed to the security laws, which allow the Self-Defense Forces to fight overseas for the first time since the end of WWII.
The tie-up is part of a concerted effort by the Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party) to say no to what they call an “uncontrollable” Abe administration and security laws they claim are unconstitutional.
For some opposition parties, the tie-up meant having to give up fielding their own candidates. Even so, they decided to unite for the sake of fulfilling anti-Abe causes.
The extent to which the opposition have joined forces in protest against the government is unparalleled in history, Nakano said.
What is also unique about the tie-up, he said, is its active collaboration with citizens dismayed at Abe’s heavy-handedness.
Spearheading the movement is Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism, which since its inception in December has lobbied furiously for the opposition parties to build a united front against the LDP-Komeito coalition in the Upper House race.
As of June 14, the group, whose diverse ranks range from scholars and lawyers to students and mothers, endorsed 21 of the 32 candidates.
“Within the boundary of what is permitted, we would like to get engaged. The students, mothers, scholars, lawyers — all of us are really keen to change the political process from the ground up by getting involved in the campaign,” said Nakano, who is a core member of the group.
Despite all this, the opposition faces an uphill battle — particularly the DP, the biggest opposition party.
Desperate to win over voters following its tumultuous stint in power from 2009 to 2012, the then-Democratic Party of Japan merged with the smaller Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) in March to re-brand itself. But its attempt at an image makeover has largely failed, experts say, with no significant change in the party’s leadership personnel and what it wants to achieve.
What’s worse, Abe’s LDP has unveiled in its election platform, or manifesto, a batch of campaign pledges that smack strongly of the DP’s traditional policies, including vows to raise wages of nonregular workers, bolster support for low-income households and better empower female workers.
By copying these signature DP policies, the LDP is no doubt seeking to undermine its rival’s main selling points in a bid to win over left-leaning voters.
Election analyst Miura said he estimated the number of DP Upper House seats will plummet from the current 60 to 43.
“Instead of just picking holes in Abe’s policies, the DP must hammer out concrete counterpolicies of its own” to appeal to voters, Kobayashi of Keio University said.
Both the ruling and opposition camps have set the stage for a full-fledged battle.
But Jun Iio, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, says the unique nature of an Upper House election makes even the most unexpected twist of events possible.
Compared with Lower House lawmakers, fewer Upper House politicians have their own support groups, meaning they can’t count on organized votes. Swing voters play a vital part in determining their fate, and history suggests gaffes, missteps and scandals on the part of candidates easily stoke their distrust and turn the tide.
“About half the Upper House elections in the past two decades turned out differently than expected,” Iio said.
“There is no guarantee nothing crazy will happen during the campaign period.”