National / Politics

Abe vows to push forward constitutional change despite failure of pro-revision forces to win Upper House supermajority

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Despite a failure by his ruling coalition and its allies to maintain a critical two-thirds majority in the Upper House, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday he remains eager to revise the nation’s postwar Constitution, pinning his hopes on the possibility of being able to form a broad consensus with opposition parties.

Sunday’s Upper House election saw pro-revision forces, including the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, its junior partner Komeito and conservative opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai, stop short of winning enough seats to preserve the two-thirds majority in the 245-seat chamber.

Without this supermajority in the Upper House, Abe will not be able to initiate a national referendum on revising the charter, which is often regarded by nationalists as a humiliating postwar imposition by the U.S.-led Occupation forces.

Speaking at a post-election news conference held at the LDP headquarters, however, Abe said constitutional revision — his longtime ambition — isn’t yet completely out of reach, and expressed hopes he will eventually be able to find common ground with anti-revision forces.

“I want the (main opposition) Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties to submit their own proposals to the Diet so we can engage in lively discussions about what our Constitution should really be like,” he said. His self-declared timeline of revising the supreme law by 2020, he added, remains unchanged.

“It is through such discussion at the Diet that I hope we can hammer out an amendment proposal that can be supported by a two-thirds majority including both ruling and opposition parties.”

Although pro-amendment forces let their supermajority slip away, the final tallies in Sunday’s election showed the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito won 57 seats and 14 seats, respectively, easily surpassing the threshold to secure a majority of the 124 up for grabs. This, combined with the 70 seats already controlled by the coalition in the uncontested half of the Upper House, will enable the bloc to retain a comfortable majority.

On the opposition side, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan significantly increased its number of seats to 17, the tallies showed. Of the 32 single-member districts where the CDP and three other opposition parties cooperated, and settled for unifying candidates to prevent a split of anti-Abe votes, 10 were won by the opposition camp — nearly as many as the 11 secured under the opposition alliance in the previous election in 2016.

Sunday’s election was plagued by the second-lowest voter turnout since the end of the World War II, with the internal affairs ministry recording a dismal 48.80 percent. The lowest was the 44.52 percent seen in the 1995 Upper House election, the ministry’s figures show.

Pundits have noted that the Abe administration has successfully capitalized on low voter turnout to score victory after victory in national elections since his return to office in December 2012. Tepid turnout, they say, usually signals a lack of interest among swing voters and tends to benefit parties with a massive organizational voting apparatus in place — such as the LDP and its junior partner, the Buddhist-backed Komeito.

Meanwhile, conservative opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai secured 10 seats, the Japanese Communist Party won seven, the Democratic Party for the People took six and the Social Democratic Party finished with one, the final results showed.

Reiwa Shinsengumi, an iconoclastic opposition group founded by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto, successfully won two seats, both of which went to candidates with severe disabilities who use specially designed wheelchairs. Yamamoto himself didn’t get a seat.

A political group that professes to “protect” the public from broadcaster NHK, whose subscription fee system it blasts as unfair, also won one seat.

The number of female candidates who won seats reached 28, tying with the record set by the previous Upper House vote in 2016. Sunday marked the first national election to take place since the Diet passed a law last year urging political parties to “make efforts” to equalize the number of male and female candidates they field.

At the news conference, Abe boasted that the LDP-Komeito pairing had managed to bag more seats than in 2016, when it took a combined 70.

“I think this result means voters want us to lay a strong foundation for our nation befitting the new era, Reiwa, based on the political stability” now in place, he said.

This strong performance, he added, also amounts to “the judgment by voters that constitutional revision at least needs to be debated,” given that Abe had repeatedly pressed the public during the campaign to choose between parties that “fulfill their responsibility” to discuss the topic and those that don’t. It was under this rationale of living up to public expectations that Abe called on opposition parties Monday to join the ruling camp in kick-starting deliberations on revision.

He also said he could be flexible, noting that an amendment proposal currently unveiled by the LDP — which centers on his plan to rewrite Article 9 to formalize the legality of the Self-Defense Forces — is not the only way forward.

“We have presented what we think is the best possible idea, but I don’t necessarily think we will have to stick to it. We will take the leadership to hold flexible discussions,” Abe said.

Moving forward, attention will now shift to a possible reshuffle of his Cabinet reportedly slated for as early as September. When asked whether he intends to retain key figures in his administration, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Finance Minister Taro Aso, Abe said he was deeply “thankful” for their service but that no details had been finalized.

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