Abe’s quest to amend Constitution at crossroads as voting begins in Japan’s Upper House election

In an election widely seen as make-or-break for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s longtime ambition to revise the postwar Constitution, voters went to the polls on Sunday to deliver a verdict on his 6½-year-old administration.

The Upper House election has huge political implications for Abe.

There is particular focus on whether his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, will be able to win enough seats to hold a two-thirds majority essential to his constitutional amendment quest.

Without this pro-revision 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.

The LDP’s steady performance in the election would also bring him closer than ever to becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. Abe has four months to go — until mid-November — before beating the all-time record set by prewar Prime Minister Taro Katsura, who was in office for a combined 2,886 days.

But to many voters, the election is 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.

In the triennial Upper House election, half the seats in the 245-seat chamber, formally known as the House of Councilors, are being contested.

Various media polls have indicated Abe’s LDP is set to cruise to a solid victory, with the ruling bloc largely forecast to surpass 63 seats, or a majority of the 124 seats up for grabs. This, combined with 70 seats already controlled by the coalition in the uncontested half, would enable the bloc to retain a comfortable majority.

But uncertainties still cloud the prospect of the LDP and its allies surviving the election with a two-thirds majority intact.

Parties in favor of constitutional change need to win 85 seats in Sunday’s election to maintain the supermajority in the chamber, but media surveys have projected that the ruling coalition, even together with conservative opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai, will likely have difficulty reaching the key threshold.

In the event pro-amendment forces manage to maintain a two-thirds majority, Abe is likely to regain momentum for his long-held push, touting the result as proof of a public endorsement for his goal.

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.

But even if the two-thirds benchmark is reached, Abe may still face stiff resistance from coalition partner Komeito to any attempt to rewrite war-renouncing Article 9, which the Buddhist-backed party has traditionally been reluctant to change.

This suggests that even if the supermajority is successfully defended, a bumpy road could nonetheless await Abe’s ambition to revise Article 9 to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces.

Even more politically perilous for Abe would be a scenario in which pro-revision forces stop shy of the two-thirds mark, which would all but dash hopes of any imminent change to the Constitution.

This scenario poses the risk that Abe could 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 keep pro-revision momentum going 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 for the DPP so he can absorb its members into a pro-revision group.

But 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.

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