Shinzo Abe set to win Japan’s upper house election

PM lacks supermajority to accelerate plans to change Japan’s pacifist constitution

Japan’s prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party president Shinzo Abe: on course to become the country’s  longest-serving prime minister. Photograph:  Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

Japan’s prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party president Shinzo Abe: on course to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

 

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe claimed victory in Sunday’s upper house election while falling short of securing a supermajority to quickly push through his plans to make the first revisions to the country’s pacifist constitution.

With the final vote tally not yet complete, Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its partner, Komeito, have won at least 69 of the 124 seats up for grabs, public broadcaster NHK projected. Given the 70 seats they hold in the uncontested section of the chamber, this amounts to a simple majority of the total 245 seats.

Mr Abe, on course to be Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November, said the vote showed the public approved of his government’s guidance of the world’s third-largest economy. “Everyone said it would be no easy task to get a majority while promising a tax hike, but I think we were able to get the public’s understanding,” he told NHK.

He and other proponents of constitutional change fell short of the 85 seats that would have given them a two-thirds majority needed to send any proposed constitutional revision to a national referendum, NHK said.

Mr Abe believes he can convince lawmakers to change their minds. “The two-thirds majority needed for constitutional reform is something we want to build from here on in through debate in parliament’s constitutional commissions,” he told NHK.

Mr Abe wants to add wording that makes explicit the legality of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces to the war-renouncing article 9 of the constitution -- though this idea divides the electorate. The document has remained unchanged since it was enacted in the aftermath of the second World War.

Debt load

The sales tax increase is intended to help rein in the globe’s biggest debt load, which stems from increased social welfare spending for Japan’s rapidly ageing population. The government has raised the tax twice since it was introduced in 1989, and both times saw an economic slide.

Even though the tax hike was opposed by 57 per cent of respondents to NHK’s exit poll Sunday, it didn’t stop Mr Abe.

The premier also laid out some plans for his government, saying Japan wants to play a role in calming the situation in the Strait of Hormuz. The UK is in talks with the US and other allies about beefing up their military presence in the Persian Gulf to deal with the rising threat to shipping they say is posed by Iran.

Voters have also supported his hard line on recent disputes with neighbouring South Korea, and polls have shown they appreciate his efforts to build a relationship with US president Donald Trump amid concerns over the stability of the US-Japan alliance.

Mr Abe’s economic prescription of unprecedented monetary easing combined with government spending and regulatory reform has achieved only partial success since he returned to office in 2012. But near-full employment has helped buffer criticism stemming from scandals, cabinet gaffes and economic faults, while a splintered opposition has failed to take advantage of the shortcomings.

‘Lame duck status’

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which opposes both the tax hike and constitutional change, is set to solidify its position as the country’s largest opposition party, NHK said. Among other opposition lawmakers, a man with the neurological disease ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was elected from the newly launched Reiwa Shinsengumi, the Mainichi newspaper reported.

“Abe comes out of this election basically as strong as before – he avoids lame duck status,” said Tobias Harris, Japan analyst for Teneo Intelligence in Washington. “He can still threaten a snap election.”

The premier is free to call an election in the more powerful lower house at any time. The last election to the lower chamber was in 2017, meaning he need not do so for another two years. – Bloomberg