National / Politics

Abe's ruling coalition victorious, but pro-revision forces suffer electoral setback in drive to amend Constitution

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and allied forces fell short of a critical two-thirds majority of the 245-seat Upper House in Sunday’s election, according to final media tallies — a significant setback in their bid to revise the nation’s postwar Constitution.

Abe’s ruling coalition, however, won enough seats to control a majority in the chamber, with voters apparently prioritizing stability in economic and social welfare policies. Its control of the chamber would at least give Abe a semblance of a win, as the figure met the self-imposed “victory line” he set during the campaign.

According to Kyodo News, voter turnout stood at 48.80 percent, the second lowest since the end of World War II. The lowest was 44.52 percent in the 1995 Upper House election, internal affairs ministry statistics show.     

The low turnout rate probably means that opposition parties had failed to drum up support from swing voters, a key element in recent national elections as more and more voters have become individualistic, dropping their loyalty to organizations they belong to.

Final tallies showed the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito won 57 seats and 14 seats, respectively, well surpassing a majority of the 124 up for grabs. This, combined with 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.

“Through this election, I felt that to a certain degree many people are critical of the Abe administration’s political dominance,” Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the CDP, told NHK.

Meanwhile, conservative opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai earned 10 seats, the Japanese Communist Party won seven, the Democratic Party for the People took six and the Social Democratic Party finished with one, 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 election was widely seen as make-or-break for Abe’s longtime ambition to revise the postwar Constitution. Abe has argued that the war-renouncing Article 9 of the supreme charter should be revised to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces.

Without a pro-revision supermajority in the Upper House, Abe will not be able to initiate a national referendum on revising the Constitution, which is often regarded by nationalists as a humiliating postwar imposition by the U.S.-led Occupation forces. Therefore, there is a risk that Abe may slide into a lame-duck position, having lost momentum for a key political push that has helped rally his conservative base and in no small way defined his identity as a politician.

One possible way he could maintain momentum for the pro-revision camp without the two-thirds majority — as he himself suggested during the campaign — would be to reach out to the opposition Democratic Party for the People, which is seen as being more flexible than other opposition parties in terms of amending the charter.

Some political observers speculate that Abe, when push comes to shove, may give up on pursuing changes to Article 9 and settle for an amendment proposal more palatable to the DPP so he can absorb its members into a pro-revision group.

On Sunday night, Abe reiterated his hopes for cooperation with the DPP.

“Whether we can form a two-thirds majority depends on how discussions at the Diet will proceed,” he said in a post-election interview with TV Asahi.

“There are many lawmakers within the DPP who believe discussions on constitutional amendment should kick off. … I hope that not just the DPP, but other parties and independent lawmakers, will press ahead with honest debate,” he added.

Still, Abe said he will take the LDP’s strong performance Sunday as proof of voters’ endorsement of his campaign pledge to revise the Constitution.

“We won more than half of the seats contested. This means people urged us to steadily promote discussion” on constitutional revision, Abe said.

“I hope debates at the Diet will make progress,” he added.

While stumping for LDP candidates in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, Abe, according to media reports, repeatedly stressed his promise to rewrite the supreme law, daring voters to choose between parties that “fulfill their responsibilities” to discuss its revision and those that don’t.

This was rather atypical of Abe, who in past election campaigns opted to avoid addressing constitutional revision head-on, apparently out of fear that bringing to the fore such a divisive topic could backfire.

Abe’s road ahead, however, is bumpy nonetheless.

For one thing, he may face stiff resistance from coalition partner Komeito to any attempt to rewrite war-renouncing Article 9, which the Buddhist-backed party has traditionally been quite reluctant to change.

If it turns out constitutional revision is more elusive than he’d hoped, Abe might have no other choice but to set his sights on other potential “legacy” projects to maintain momentum for his leadership, which is set to end in September 2021, observers say.

“Foreign affairs will play an outsized role on Abe’s agenda regardless of the outcome on Sunday, but especially if Abe fails to receive a pro-revision supermajority,” Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence, a consulting firm in Washington, said in an emailed newsletter.

“If revision appears to be foreclosed, Abe will likely look abroad for a legacy issue,” he said.

Although having been unable to make any significant headway, Abe has also been keen to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia and repatriate Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ultimately, the election was to many voters first and foremost a chance for them to endorse or repudiate the Abe administration’s performance since he returned to power in December 2012.

His main campaign pitch centered on the “stability” of his government, a message he repeatedly referenced to evoke memories of chaos and high leadership turnover that pervaded the brief period in power of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Particularly at issue was Abe’s pledge to raise the consumption tax from the current 8 percent to 10 percent in October. The LDP-Komeito coalition has justified the hike as a way of covering the costs of ballooning social security costs and free preschool education, despite claims by the opposition that the hike will be detrimental to household finances.

Observers say Abe could become a lame duck as the end of his third term approaches.

However, according to NHK, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai told a radio program Sunday that Abe “has won much support” from party members through Sunday’s election and that it would not be “unnatural at all” if rules were revised to allow Abe to be elected party president for an unprecedented fourth time.

When asked to elaborate on the possibility of Abe’s fourth term during a separate media appearance, Nikai said he believes “that’s what the public wants.”

Given the support for the LDP, “I don’t think it’s unnatural at all to think there are huge expectations for Abe,” he said.

Asked about Nikai’s remark, Abe said he will perform his duties as party president until the end of his term as set by party rules.

“I very much appreciate (Nikai’s) comment, but I’d rather focus on producing results and dedicate myself wholeheartedly to the rest of my term (as LDP president) as per the current LDP rule,” he said

Abe’s current term as LDP president ends in fall 2021. Given the majority held by the LDP-Komeito coalition, the head of the LDP would usually serve as the prime minister.

Staff writers Sakura Murakami and Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5