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Abe emerges stronger with win, but faces nation still divided over constitutional revision

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Staff Writer

With early results pointing to a big win for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition in Sunday’s Lower House election, supporters may celebrate what appears to be a clear path to policy dominance.

After vote-counting began, exit polls and media projections suggested the ruling bloc could capture more than two-thirds of the 465-seat Lower House, dashing the hopes of fledging opposition forces.

The news may leave many wondering what’s in store for Japanese politics.

Abe appeared set to emerge with a stronger power base, possibly allowing him to win a third term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party in a leadership contest next September that would, in turn, see him extend his term as prime minister.

He would also find himself in a better position to push for his longtime political goal of revising the pacifist Constitution, as a win on the scale projected would give the ruling bloc, together with other pro-revision parties, the power to set such a change in motion.

To initiate a national referendum on any constitutional revision, support of more than two-thirds of the Lower House is required, a rare status the Abe coalition appeared likely to maintain after Sunday’s vote. Under such a scenario, Abe might formally propose a national referendum during the regular Diet session starting in January.

The situation, however, may not be as rosy as pro-Abe Diet forces have envisioned.

Polls have suggested built-up frustration with Abe’s government, and the nation remains sharply divided over a proposal to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 to define the status of the Self-Defense Forces.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the liberal Asahi Shimbun on Tuesday and Wednesday, 51 percent of 1,574 respondents said they do not want Abe to continue as prime minister, while 34 percent said they did.

The poll, standing in stark contrast with Sunday’s election results, suggested that many voters cast their ballots for the LDP due to the lack of a clear alternative.

The abrupt emergence of Kibo no To late last month ended up splitting the opposition, despite some initial hope that the movement would herald a united front. This provided major leverage for LDP candidates running in the 289 single-seat districts, where only one candidate is chosen as a winner.

“In most of the single-member constituencies, you have multiple opposition candidates running against one LDP candidate,” political analyst Tobias Harris said at the FCCJ news conference. This is one of the reasons any LDP win could be called “victory by default,” he said.

Naoto Nonaka, professor of politics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, agreed. In single-seat constituencies, it is easy for the ruling bloc to win an overwhelming majority if opposition forces are split into several camps, he said.

“The LDP and Komeito fielded a single candidate in all areas, while opposition parties were split. This made a difference,” Nonaka said Sunday night.

He also pointed out that the economy is in relatively robust condition.

For example, the jobless rate dropped to as low as 2.8 percent in August, according to the internal affairs ministry.

“Some people may question the effects of Abenomics, but overall economic conditions are not bad at all,” Nonaka said, adding it helped Abe’s coalition snare more voters.

Of course, opposition forces are likely to face much of the blame for their own poor performances.

Before and during election campaigning, the parties did not espouse clear economic or social welfare policy proposals that could challenge those of Abe’s government.

Instead, they focused on hammering away at Abe’s government over alleged cronyism involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen. The strategy failed to garner support from voters, who have traditionally prioritized issues like jobs and the economy in major elections.

Still, the lack of support for the opposition does not necessarily mean strong support for all of Abe’s political initiatives.

The same Asahi poll from last week showed that 37 percent supported Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9, with 40 percent opposed.

The result shows that the nation is sharply split over the issue, although Abe has clearly backed away from a more drastic revision proposed by the LDP in 2012.

Nonaka pointed out that Kibo no To, which supports revising the Constitution, lost steam during the election campaign, while the CDP could become the No. 1 opposition party after a better-than-expected showing, according to media predictions based on exist polls.

The CDP staunchly opposed Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9.

“This means that the consensus among voters is (the ruling parties) should act cautiously in handling constitutional revision issues,” according to Nonaka. “Many voters, probably more than half of all voters, actually believe it is too early to revise Article 9.”

If the CDP becomes the largest opposition force, it could considerably delay deliberations in the Diet to initiate a national referendum.

The ruling coalition has said that a referendum should be proposed to the nation only after the biggest opposition force gives its agreement.

In the 2012 draft, the LDP called for allowing Japan to fully exercise the right of collective self-defense as defined under the United Nations charter, drastically expanding the legal scope for joint military operations with ally the United States.

But in May this year, Abe proposed that the article only be revised to clearly legitimize the status of the SDF, which he says would not change the nation’s exclusively defense-oriented policy.

Media polls have suggested for years that a majority of respondents trust the SDF and consider it constitutional, despite the fact that Article 9 says “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Abe made his revised proposal apparently considering the public’s high level of confidence in the SDF.

In the end, a national referendum — not a numbers game in the Diet — will determine the fate of Article 9, something Abe himself has repeatedly emphasized. To revise any article, a referendum must have the support of more than half of voters.

Polls, however, have also suggested that about half of the nation’s voters are reluctant to support revision. Some may be concerned that the move would give more momentum to political forces trying to deny the value of Japan’s postwar diplomacy.

“In my view, making the SDF constitutional must not mean a denial of the postwar history of Japan,” critic and novelist Hiroki Azuma was quoted as saying in an interview published by HuffPost Japan earlier this month.

“If you just look at the proposed text of the article, it may look good on the surface, but I don’t think the underlying values that come with (Abe’s proposal) will lead to a bright future for Japan,” Azuma maintained.