News analysis

Tough for Shinzo Abe to revise charter despite poll win

Japanese PM has to contend with coalition partner, voters and neighbouring countries

Controversial reforms to Japan's pacifist Constitution, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shied away from discussing in the lead-up to Sunday's Upper House election, are back on the agenda now that his coalition and its allies have won a two- thirds "supermajority".

Mr Abe was cautious in his remarks on Sunday, speaking of the need for "widespread consultation" both within and outside politics in determining the clauses to amend.

"The constitutional review committee of the Diet will discuss the matter and boil down which articles should be revised and how," he said of the charter that has not been modified since it was enacted in 1947.

Yesterday, he said: "To realise the revision of the Constitution is my duty as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president. But it is not that easy, so I hope debate will deepen steadily."

After Sunday's election, which saw a voter turnout of 54.7 per cent, Mr Abe's LDP and coalition partner Komeito hold 146 of the 242 seats in the Upper House.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (second from left) celebrating with LDP members on Sunday at the party's headquarters in Tokyo after the Upper House election win. LDP and coalition partner Komeito now hold 146 of the 242 seats in the Upper House.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (second from left) celebrating with LDP members on Sunday at the party's headquarters in Tokyo after the Upper House election win. LDP and coalition partner Komeito now hold 146 of the 242 seats in the Upper House. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Also in the pro-revision camp are Initiatives from Osaka (12 seats) and Party for Japanese Kokoro (three seats), as well as four independent lawmakers.

This means Mr Abe's coalition and its allies have 165 seats, exceeding the 162-seat threshold.

The LDP-Komeito coalition holds a two-thirds majority in the more powerful Lower House.

To revise the Constitution, Mr Abe also needs to win a simple majority in a national referendum.

But the Prime Minister appears to have his work cut out - some LDP lawmakers are reportedly against drastic reforms, while the Komeito has said it is open to adding clauses but was cautious about widespread changes to the pacifist Article 9.

Media exit polls on Sunday also showed a split in public opinion.

Japanese wire agency Jiji Press showed 29.6 per cent in favour, 36 per cent against and 34.4 per cent undecided, while public broadcaster NHK showed a third in favour and another third against. Meanwhile, a poll run by the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun showed 49 per cent in favour and 44 per cent against.

Past governments, short of amending the Constitution, have reinterpreted Article 9 to allow a self-defence military.

Mr Abe used this last year to allow the military to go to the aid of friendly nations under attack.

There are also expectations that he will establish an "emergency situations clause" to allow a state of emergency to be imposed in such events as a natural disaster.

Kobe University's Professor Tosh Minohara told The Straits Times that given the mixed public opinion, any constitutional change is likely to be "very cautious and measured".

"Pushing it forward will be very, very difficult.

"I think Mr Abe wants to step on the gas but Komeito will be the brakes," he said.

He noted that any attempt to revise the Constitution will upset Japan's neighbours amid a heated geopolitical environment, but said that threats from Beijing and Pyongyang may inadvertently give him "political capital".

"Mr Abe might be supported by regional events in Asia in making the necessary sales pitch to the people of Japan, who are going to be very defensive," he said.

Political observers and financial market players have also said that the Prime Minister's primary focus should be on fixing the flagging economy - which was his election promise.

He has been quick off the mark on this front, ordering a new stimulus package yesterday that is widely expected to be worth at least 10 trillion yen (S$132 billion).

LDP rules dictate that Mr Abe cannot be re-elected for a third term as party chief after his term ends in 2018.

But speculation is swirling that he may push through a special resolution to stay in power longer than that, if he requires more time to see through his plan.

East Asia specialist Lim Tai Wei of Singapore's SIM University said the strong mandate may "enable Mr Abe to muster the influence to be a powerful and influential party elder after his term ends".

"It may also allow Mr Abe to continue in an extraordinary third term as LDP president for longevity in policies that include constitutional reform and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo," said Professor Lim, who also teaches summer courses at Japan's Waseda University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Tough for Abe to revise charter despite poll win'. Print Edition | Subscribe