Abe’s ruling coalition stays in power but pro-revision forces fall short of constitutional referendum
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its ally parties were predicted to fall short of a critical two-thirds majority of the 245-seat Upper House in Sunday’s election, according to NHK, and suffer a significant setback in their bid to revise the nation’s post-war Constitution.
Abe’s ruling coalition, however, was set to win enough seats to control a majority of the chamber, as voters apparently prioritized stability in economic and social welfare policies. Its expected control of the chamber would at least give Abe a semblance of a win, as it meets the self-imposed “victory line” he set for the campaign.
According to Kyodo News, voter turnout was estimated at 49.42 percent as of 9 p.m., down 5.28 points from the previous Upper House election on 2016.
A low turnout rate probably means that opposition parties 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.
Media projections showed the ruling coalition was set to surpass 63 seats, 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.
The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan was projected to significantly increase its number of Upper House seats from its current 15, media projections 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.
The tally was likely to be finalized early Monday morning,
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 Constitution 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 charter, 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 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.
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.”
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 said.
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. Abe, for one thing, 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.
To many voters, the election was 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 a 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.