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Abe says win gives him mandate to accelerate economic policies but remains mum on Constitution

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Fresh from sweeping the polls in Sunday’s Upper House election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday called the outcome an endorsement of Abenomics and pledged to expand spending, particularly in rural areas, despite soaring public debt.

But he said nothing about whether and how he may push his long-held ambition to rewrite the postwar pacifist Constitution, now that lawmakers who support revision hold two-thirds of both houses of the Diet — enough to trigger a referendum on the question.

“The nation has given me a powerful mandate to further accelerate Abenomics. I am grateful for this,” Abe told a news conference at the Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Tokyo.

He pledged to promote public works projects to help farmers and fishing industry workers export their produce and to promote the construction of a maglev railway while expanding the nation’s shinkansen network.

Abe also said his government will take advantage of the Bank of Japan’s negative interest rate policy to issue more bonds under the government loans and investment plan. Negative rates have pushed long-term interest rates below zero.

Meanwhile, Kyodo News said Abe will reshuffle the Cabinet as early as August.

Sunday’s election saw the ruling coalition score a sweeping victory. The LDP won 56 seats and Komeito took 14 seats.

Together with Osaka Ishin no Kai, which won 7 seats, constitutional revisionists secured 77 seats of the 121 seats up for grabs this time.

Together with four independents who are also thought to back revision, pro-revision forces hold more than 162 Upper House seats, which places Abe in a position to amend the Constitution.

He has long been known as an advocate of rewriting the pacifist text, with changes presumably including the war-renouncing Article 9. He has argued that the charter is a relic of the postwar period as it was imposed by the U.S.-led Occupation after Japan’s surrender in World War II.

During the news conference, Abe was repeatedly asked how he will push for constitutional revision. He replied that it is a matter mainly for the LDP and other political parties in the Diet, not the prime minister. “The (Diet) Commission on the Constitution should first discuss in detail which article should be revised and how,” Abe said. “It is expected that discussion will be initiated, developed and narrowed down there.”

Winning support of two-thirds in both chambers “is not an easy task,” Abe said, adding that the final say will be given by ordinary voters and not lawmakers.

Indeed, polls suggest the population is unlikely to support changing Article 9, which makes such an attempt risky.

The support of two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers is required for the Diet to initiate a national referendum, and support of more than half of votes is needed to revise any article of the Constitution.

According to a poll conducted by the daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun in March, 61 percent of respondents said the pacifist article should be left unchanged, while 35 percent called for revision.

Critics say the LDP is likely to first propose a revision that creates an article empowering the prime minister with state-of-emergency-like powers in the event of a major contingency such as a large earthquake.

They say LDP lawmakers may see an incremental series of revisions as likely to soften up the nation, leaving voters more amenable to revising Article 9 in the future.

Moreover, parties calling for constitutional changes have yet to agree exactly which articles should be revised.

In 2012 the LDP published a proposed rewrite of much of the Constitution, including Article 9. The party said the article should be changed to allow Japan to maintain “national defense forces” and to fully use the right of collective self-defense, or the right to engage in combat a country that is attacking an ally, even if Japan itself is not under attack.

However, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi told a news conference Sunday he opposes immediate changes to Article 9.

Instead, many Komeito lawmakers want the creation of a new article to enshrine the right of citizens to a healthy natural environment. Komeito’s main backer is Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist group, which has traditionally advocated moderate diplomatic policies.

Osaka Ishin no Kai, which won seven seats in Sunday’s election, said it is willing to initiate a national referendum, in particular to revise the Constitution so that local governments gain more autonomy.

However, it remains unclear whether the party would support a revision of Article 9, as Ishin leaders may plan to use the party’s position on the issue as a bargaining chip to secure LDP support for its own agenda on local government reforms.

The voter turnout rate of Sunday’s election was 54.7 percent for the constituency segment, the fourth-lowest record in the postwar years.

The highest turnout was recorded in Nagano Prefecture at 62.86, followed by Yamagata 62.22 percent and Shimane 62.20.

Meanwhile the lowest turnout was in Kochi Prefecture with 45.52 percent, followed by Tokushima with 46.98 percent, Hiroshima 49.58 percent.