Japan’s ruling coalition on course to win parliamentary election

A large majority for the ruling coalition in the upper house may enable constitutional reform allowing more freedom of action for military

Japans ruling coalition secured a resounding victory in upper house elections on Sunday, with some exit polls predicting that prime minister Shinzo Abes party and its allies would achieve the legislative firepower they need to rewrite the countrys pacifist constitution.

According to the exit polls, Abes Liberal Democratic party (LDP) was on course to win 57 to 59 seats of the 121 seats that were contested. Its junior coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed Komeito, was expected to win 14 seats.

Combined with other minor conservative parties, the coalition was within reach of the number of seats it needs in the upper house to set in motion plans to change the US-authored constitution for the first time since it was introduced in 1947.

The most controversial move would be a revision of the war-renouncing article 9 to allow Japans self-defence forces to act more like a conventional army. The article forbids Japan from using force to settle international disputes and restricts the countrys land, air and naval forces to a strictly defensive role.

In another disastrous night for Japans opposition parties, Abes coalition was on the brink of securing a two-thirds majority in both houses of the national Diet.

Amending article 9 would require a two-thirds majority in both houses and a simple majority in a nationwide referendum.

With polls showing that voters are wary of boosting Japans military, Abe barely mentioned the constitution during the campaign, insisting the election was an opportunity to reaffirm public support for his economic policy, known as Abenomics.

Shinzo Abe (fifth from left) answers reporters questions during counting for the upper house election on 10 July. Photograph: UPI/Barcroft Images

Abenomics has never failed but is still half done, Abe told voters in Tokyo on Saturday. All we have to do is to push for the policy firmly and steadily.

Faced with criticism over his failure to meet inflation targets, flat consumer spending and a post-Brexit resurgent yen, Abe is expected to unveil a post-election stimulus package that could exceed 10tn yen (76.7bn).

My goal was to win more than half of seats and now that we have done that Im relieved, Abe said in a TV interview as the results were being counted. We have a mandate from the public for our economic policy, so I want to focus my efforts on that.

At this point, its meaningless to say yes or no [over potential revisions to the constitution], Abe added. I have two more years to my term (as LDP president) and this is a goal of the LDP, so I want to address it in a calm manner.

But as soon as the polls closed, his partys policy chief, Tomomi Inada, said constitutional reform was on the agenda. Our party is one that calls for reforming the constitution, she said. Our party has already submitted a draft for reforming the constitution.

Some analysts predicted voters would react angrily to any shift of focus away from the economy towards constitutional reform. Markets want confirmation of Abes strong grip on power, but they also want Abe to use that power for the economy first, not constitutional reform, said Jesper Koll, chief executive at fund manager WisdomTree Japan.

Opposition parties warned that Abe was using the economy as a smokescreen for his long-held desire to loosen the constitutional shackles on Japans military.

Abe and other conservatives believe the war-renouncing constitution unfairly limits Japans ability to respond to new threats to regional security, such as international terrorism, an increasingly assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.

But experts said winning a supermajority alone would not give Abe a mandate to push ahead with constitutional reform.

Even though the constitutional reform is buried deep in the small print of the LDP manifesto, Abe completely avoided mentioning it during the campaign, which was centered around Abenomics, said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University.

Abe has previously pulled back from suggesting constitutional amendments after polls indicated that few voters shared his enthusiasm for scrapping the antiwar clause.

Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, said Abe could also struggle to convince his coalition partner, Komeito, to back changes that would widen the reach of the countrys military.

The campaign has exposed the degree to which the LDP and Komeito do not have the same vision for revision nor do they have the same sense of where revision should rank on the list of priorities, Harris said. When you add the assorted third parties into the mix, the picture gets even murkier. So its not immediately clear to me what form constitutional revision would take.

Nakano warned that ditching the pacifist constitution would mark the official start of an north-east Asian arms race, unless one naively believes that the more Japan is remilitarised the safer the country and the world will be.

Yasuo Hasebe, a constitutional scholar at Waseda University, said Sundays landslide did not mean voters had given constitutional revision their blessing. The coalition parties did not mention any specific proposals on possible changes to the constitution and people cannot grant a mandate for something they were not told about, Hasebe said.

The coalition did not mention constitutional reform because they realise that changes to the core principles of the constitution are unpopular among the electorate.

Sundays election was the first major one to take place since the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18, potentially adding 2.4 million voters. Turnout among new voters was low, however, despite attempts to woo the youth vote with manga campaigns and other gimmicks.

Overall turnout was 32.49% as of 6pm two hours before polling stations closed down 0.15 percentage points from the last upper house election in 2013, according to Kyodo News.

The final result is not expected until the early hours of Monday.

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