National / Politics

Campaign kicks off for Japan Upper House poll, a litmus test for constitutional reform and tax hike

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Official campaigning for the July 21 Upper House election kicked off Thursday in what could be a make-or-break vote for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s career-long ambition to revise the post-war Constitution while also serving as a litmus test for his economic policies, including the planned consumption tax hike in October.

The biggest focus will be on whether the Liberal Democratic Party and other forces in favor of constitutional amendment will be able to retain their current two-thirds supermajority — a key threshold needed to initiate a national referendum on the divisive topic.

But at the same time, political observers say the outcome of the election may not provide a clear-cut clue as to whether Abe’s quest for constitutional revision will become a reality. A persistent resistance by coalition partner Komeito to revise war-renouncing Article 9, not to mention the ever-divergent attitudes among opposition forces, blur the line between pro- and anti-revision forces, leaving some room for ambiguity, observers say.

Abe has proposed that Article 9 should be revised to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces, while claiming it would not change the substance of its operations, which have long been limited to the country’s self-defense. Opposition parties, however, are opposed to any revision of the war-renouncing article, arguing Abe’s proposed revision could eventually lead to a change in government interpretation of the article and thereby drastically expand the legal scope of the SDF’s missions.

Another likely campaign focus is the planned raising of the consumption tax in October. The LDP-Komeito coalition has maintained the tax should be increased as planned from 8 to 10 percent to cover growing social security costs and free education for children, while opposition parties disagree, saying the hike would plague households and dampen consumption.

The Upper House election takes place every three years to reshuffle half of the 245-seat chamber of the Diet.

In the July 21 poll, lawmakers elected in 2013 will fight for their re-election. A total of 370 candidates are reportedly set to compete for 124 seats, of which 74 will be chosen in electoral districts and 50 via proportional representation.

Due to an electoral system reform enacted last year, the number of seats up for grabs has risen by three to 124 from the last Upper House poll in 2016.

Political parties are likely to battle over a number of other issues, including those involving the public pension system, a hot topic of late following public outrage over a controversial Financial Services Agency report that estimated ¥20 million in savings might be needed for the average couple to sustain their post-retirement lives.

As he addressed voters in the city of Fukushima on Thursday, Abe, for his part, reportedly touted the election as a chance to ask voters “whether they want to choose political parties that fulfill their responsibility to discuss (constitutional revision) or those that don’t.”

It remains to be seen whether the ruling coalition and allies such as conservative opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai will be able to maintain the current two-thirds majority after the election.

But Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, said keeping this threshold will be a high hurdle for the ruling coalition to overcome, citing the common belief that the LDP is likely to lose some seats in the forthcoming poll.

LDP lawmakers seeking re-election this time around are no longer buoyed by the same pro-LDP momentum they were enjoying six summers ago. Back then, the Abe administration was in the middle of a “honeymoon phase” with voters, as the prime minister had taken office only months before, and the public disenchantment with the Democratic Party of Japan’s tumultuous stint in power from 2009 to 2012 remained strong.

As a result, the 2013 election saw the LDP take 65 seats. In 2016, the party appeared to lose some steam and wound up with 56 seats. With slowing momentum apparently in mind, Abe has set the ruling coalition’s “victory line” at a rather conservative 53 seats, fewer than the 70 the coalition bagged in the 2016 vote.

While the outcome of the election will have a significant impact on Abe’s publicly stated timeline of amending the top law by 2020, it may not be an immediate game-changer either, Uchiyama said.

Even if the ruling coalition and Nippon Ishin no Kai manage to keep the two-thirds majority, Komeito’s staunch resistance to Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9 spells trouble for the prime minister going forward, he said.

At the same time, the professor said, even if the pro-revision forces fall short of the key threshold, the opposition Democratic Party for the People is seen as slightly more flexible than other opposition parties in terms of approval for constitutional amendment.

In its campaign manifesto, the second-largest opposition party, while criticizing Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9, has emphasized its intention to discuss a “future-oriented” Constitution, which apparently suggests the party is open to discuss revision of other articles.

In a debate with party leaders Wednesday, Abe appeared to deliberately align himself with Yuichiro Tamaki, the head of the DPP, pointing out “there are some people within (the party) who are positive about revising the Constitution” and voicing a willingness to “form a consensus” with some opposition parties.

Given the reluctance of Komeito and opposition parties to revise Article 9, “Abe may eventually give up on the article and instead try to revise other less controversial clauses he can form a broad consensus on, so he can at least earn his place in history as someone who revised the Constitution at all,” Uchiyama said.

Opposition parties, for their part, have been uniting under the “anti-Abe” banner and unifying candidates in some single-seat districts to maximize the chances of getting non-LDP candidates elected.

Uchiyama pointed out that the economic policies unveiled by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the DPP both place an emphasis on helping households first, rather then major corporations, while Abe’s Abenomics policies are said to have mainly benefited big companies.

Major Japanese parties’ election pledges

The Liberal Democratic Party will:

  • seek to amend the Constitution early on by promoting discussions.
  • strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and lead rule-making and unification of the international community.
  • increase people’s income through a strong economy and raise the consumption tax to 10 percent in October as planned.
  • promote regional economic development and smart farming using advanced technologies.
  • improve protection and care of children in the wake of a series of serious child abuse cases.

Komeito will:

  • provide support for elderly people’s safe driving and enhance transportation options for them in the wake of an increasing number of car accidents involving senior drivers.
  • create a successor organization for the Reconstruction Agency scheduled to disband in 2021 to oversee rebuilding of disaster-hit areas and promote disaster prevention.
  • raise the average minimum wage to over ¥1,000 in the first half of the 2020s from the current level of around ¥870.
  • introduce reduced tax rates for some products and gift certificates to mitigate the impact of the Oct. 1 consumption hike on consumers.
  • slash the monthly salary of Upper House lawmakers by ¥77,000.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan will:

  • freeze the planned consumption tax hike to 10 percent and review the progressiveness of income and corporate tax systems.
  • block restarts of idled nuclear plants and enact legislation to exit nuclear power at an early date.
  • place importance on a diverse society and seek to amend laws to allow separate surnames for married couples among other measures to improve equality.
  • discuss constitutional amendment in terms of restricting the prime minister’s right to dissolve the House of Representatives.

The Japanese Communist Party will:

  • cancel the October consumption tax hike.
  • scrap the macroeconomic slide, designed to limit pension payment increases to less than the rate of inflation or wage increases, and avoid declines in pension benefits in pursuit of a fairer pension system.
  • compile pension reform plans including the utilization of the pension reserve as a funding source for benefits and seek a higher premium burden for high-income earners.
  • block any constitutional amendment and oppose the LDP’s plan to rewrite war-renouncing Article 9.
  • ban restarts of idled nuclear power plants and move toward ending the use of nuclear power.
  • set a uniform minimum wage of ¥1,000.
  • immediately halve university tuition.

The Democratic Party for the People will:

  • widen the scope of child allowances while removing the income cap.
  • give monthly rent subsidies of ¥10,000 to people earning ¥5 million or less annually.
  • block the consumption tax hike in October.
  • increase payments for low-income pension recipients.
  • introduce a cap on expressway tolls for passenger cars.

Nippon Ishin no Kai will:

  • freeze the consumption tax hike and generate funding for free education by cutting salaries of Diet lawmakers and public servants.
  • seek constitutional amendment to make education free, reform governing structures and establish a constitutional court.
  • establish a national memorial facility for Japanese soldiers who died in World War II and an intelligence organization similar to the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • switch to a pension system in which people receive the benefits they have accumulated from the current system which uses working generations’ premiums to finance benefits paid to current recipients.

Information on pledges from Kyodo added.

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