Much will be at stake in the July 10 Upper House election, whose campaign effectively kicked off as the 150-day regular Diet session closed Wednesday. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is calling the triennial Upper House race, in which half the chamber’s 242 seats come up for grabs, a popular verdict on his 3½-year-old Abenomics policies — along with the decision he announced this week to postpone hiking the consumption tax to 10 percent by 30 months to October 2019.
It will also be the first nationwide election since his administration’s contentious security legislation, which lifted the government’s long-standing ban on Japan engaging in collective self-defense and significantly expanded the scope for Self-Defense Force missions overseas, was enacted last year amid sharply divided public opinion and an outcry from scholars and opposition parties that the legislation violates the war-renouncing Constitution. And depending on the outcome of the Upper House election, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, with the help of its allies, may for the first time secure a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet — a condition necessary to initiate a constitutional amendment for approval by a national referendum.
Voters need to fully recognize the issues at stake and the implications of the ballots they cast five weeks from now.
Abe and his ruling coalition enter the Upper House race — the third nationwide election since they returned to power in the December 2012 Lower House contest — with strong popular support. The approval ratings of Abe’s Cabinet in media polls, which plunged sharply last year as the ruling coalition rammed the security legislation through the Diet, have since largely recovered, with recent Kyodo News polls showing 55 percent in support of the administration, versus 33 percent against. His LDP claimed support of 44.4 percent of the respondents — roughly five times larger than the 8.7 percent for the largest opposition Democratic Party.
The LDP alone holds 65 of the 121 seats that are uncontested next month. If it captures 57 of the 121 seats up for grabs — compared with its pre-election strength of 50 — the LDP will regain a single-party majority in the Upper House for the first time since it was lost in the 1989 election, when the party suffered a huge setback right after the LDP-led government introduced a 3 percent consumption tax.
The party’s ruling coalition with Komeito together has 76 uncontested seats, and will be able to retain a majority in the chamber as long as it wins 46 seats. Abe said the coalition’s target is to capture a majority of the 121 seats contested next month. That would still be far short of a two-thirds majority of 162 in the 242-seat chamber. But the two-thirds majority may not be out of reach if other forces supportive of Abe’s bid for constitutional amendment are counted — in fact they would reach the threshold if they together win at least 78 of the seats up for grabs.
Abe, who has been increasingly candid about his bid to amend the postwar Constitution since the beginning of the year, appeared to play down an amendment as a campaign issue during his Wednesday news conference announcing the postponement of the consumption tax hike. Still, this is the last Upper House election before his supposed last term as LDP chief ends in September 2018. It may be the last chance for him to forge a two-thirds majority (which the LDP-Komeito alliance already has in the Lower House) in the upper chamber and initiate a constitutional amendment while he’s in office — as he told the Diet he hoped to do.
The last three nationwide Diet elections that Abe fought at the helm of the LDP all ended in a landslide win for his coalition. Ever since the Democratic Party of Japan’s crushing fall from power in 2012, the splintered opposition camp has been dwarfed and powerless against the LDP-Komeito bloc both in Diet proceedings and at the polls.
Now they may be coming to their senses. The upcoming election will test a joint campaign that four opposition forces including the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party agreed to forge in all of the 32 electoral districts in which one seat each is up for grabs, where the parties will avoid competing with each other and field a single candidate against the ruling coalition. The winner-take-all races in such constituencies influence the election’s overall outcome. The LDP won in 29 of 31 such districts in the last Upper House race in 2013, but the results also showed that opposition parties combined won more votes than the LDP in several of those constituencies. If they do not split their votes among themselves, the opposition parties may outperform or at least put up a good fight against the ruling bloc candidates.
How that calculation fares in the actual election remains to be seen. The joint campaign was forged as the JCP withdrew its candidates in most of the constituencies at stake in favor of either Democratic Party members or independents. But doubts remain whether the cooperation will work among parties that have disparate campaign machines and supporters, including labor unions, and lack a common policy platform — a problem that Abe and other ruling coalition leaders also highlight as they criticize the opposition campaign.
The upcoming election will also see the minimum voting age lowered from 20 to 18 — the first such change since it was lowered from 25 to 20 in 1945. The amendment to the Public Offices Election Law enacted last year brings in an estimated 2.4 million new voters. Recent Diet elections have been marred by declining voter turnout — with the rate in the 2013 Upper House race at 52.61 percent — but the turnout among younger voters is particularly low — the 33.37 percent among voters in their 20s was roughly half the 67.56 percent among those in their 60s. Younger voters should realize that the issues at stake affect their own future — including the impact of Abe’s decision to delay the tax hike on the nation’s fiscal health and sustainability of the social security system — and not make light of their newly acquired enfranchisement.
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