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Japan’s upper house race likely to shape constitution reform moves

Japanese voters are set to cast their ballots this weekend to elect a new upper house of parliament. And PM Shinzo Abe's ruling party is expected to secure a big victory. Martin Fritz reports from Tokyo.

Japanese voters are set to cast their ballots this weekend to elect a new upper house of parliament. And PM Shinzo Abe’s ruling party is expected to secure a big victory. Martin Fritz reports from Tokyo.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is likely to perform strongly in the upcoming election – set to take place on Sunday, July 10 – when half of the seats in the upper house of parliament are up for grabs.

Polls suggest that the ruling alliance, made up of the LDP and its partner Komeito, is on course to win control of the 242-seat chamber. Such a victory would bolster Abe’s attempts to revise the East Asian nation’s postwar pacifist constitution.

Any amendment to the constitution needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Japan’s legislature, followed by a nationwide referendum on the new text. And the LDP-led coalition already has such a majority in the lower house.

While Japan’s current constitution renounces war and the use of force as a means to settle international disputes, Abe has stressed that this imposes unnecessary constraints on the nation’s security and foreign policies. He has also said it limits Japan’s ability to support its allies.

Ignoring massive protests, the premier last year pushed a bill through parliament to allow for “collective self-defense.” He argued that it would help consolidate Japan’s security alliance with the US, particularly against the backdrop of China’s growing clout in the Asia Pacific region.

For a long time, the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito had been regarded as a major obstacle when it came to softening Japan’s constitutional pacifism. But the junior party has presented itself as a surprisingly flexible coalition partner, as evidenced by its support of the controversial security laws.

Economic concerns

On the economics front, Abe’s decision in June to delay a sales-tax rise is also expected to work in the LDP’s favor at the ballot box, despite the nation’s current economic weakness.

The government was slated to raise the consumption tax to 10 percent in 2017, but it now says the increase will be postponed to late 2019. The last time Japan saw a hike in the sales tax – from 5 percent to 8 percent in April 2014 – the economy fell into a brief recession and consumer spending slumped.

And the country has since struggled to recover entirely and boost growth. Explaining his decision on the tax rise, Abe pointed to global risks amid growing headwinds for the world economy.

While the prime minister boasts about low unemployment and rising wages, polls show voter support for the Abe administration has been declining, largely due to growing dissatisfaction among the electorate about the state of the economy.

As a result of the previous sales tax rise and higher costs of imported goods due to a weak yen, many Japanese have seen a drop in their purchasing power and less money in their wallets, say economists.

In this context, analysts say the upcoming vote will be crucial for shaping the nation’s geopolitical as well as economic policies in the coming years.

No effective opposition

But despite the potential implications, the election campaign has so far remained lackluster. And Japan’s opposition parties have been unable to capitalize on the situation.

The main opposition Democratic Party has forged an alliance with other outfits such as the Social Democratic Party, the People’s Life Party and the Communist Party, and they are backing the same candidates in all single-seat constituencies. However, the alliance has struggled to gain traction with voters.

Experts say it’s partly because of their lack of credibility as well as the inability to reach a consensus on important issues related to defense and the economy.

Polls conducted in recent days by Japanese media organizations show that the LDP could secure a simple majority in the upper house for the first time since 1989, while the ruling alliance – the LDP and Komeito – are likely to surpass Abe’s target of taking a majority of the seats up for grabs.

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