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Abe likely to tighten grip on power

With the opposition divided and the economy recovering moderately, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be on course to winning an Upper House election which is likely to be held in July.

A victory would strengthen his grip on power and make him one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Japanese history. The 61-year-old leader is already the sixth-longest-serving post-war prime minister.

He has led his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to victory in three consecutive national polls: a general election in December 2012 that brought him back to the premiership, an Upper House election in July 2013, and a general election in December 2014 after he dissolved the Lower House a month earlier.

Experts predict the LDP and its coalition partner, the Komeito party, will score a sweeping victory in the upcoming polls, partly because opposition parties are unlikely to be successful in building a unified force against the Abe government.

Even within the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), lawmakers remain divided over a merger plan with the Japan Innovation Party, and conservative DPJ members oppose the idea of election cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party.

Political science professor Tomoaki Iwai of Nihon University in Tokyo said: "Unless the Abe government is hit by another big scandal or uncertainties in the world economy push Japanese stock prices sharply lower, I expect the LDP to win a simple majority in the Upper House for the first time in 27 years."

Experts predict the LDP and its coalition partner, the Komeito party, will score a sweeping victory in the upcoming polls, partly because opposition parties are unlikely to be successful in building a unified force against the Abe government.

The LDP and Komeito control a majority in the 242-member House of Councillors and a two-thirds majority in the 475-seat House of Representatives, a more powerful lower chamber of Parliament.

Last month, Mr Abe was rocked by a cash-for-favours scandal involving his key economics minister. But Mr Akira Amari's swift resignation minimised damage, with public support rates for Mr Abe's Cabinet standing relatively high at above 50 per cent.

Pundits are also watching developments over Mr Abe's calls to amend the Constitution, his long-term political goal. The Charter has never been altered since its promulgation in November 1946. A revision requires approval by at least two-thirds of the members in each House of Parliament, as well as a majority in a national referendum. In an effort to spur public debate about revising the Constitution, Mr Abe said recently he will make this a campaign issue for the impending election. He questioned, for example, a contradiction between the existence of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) and the Charter's ban on Japan maintaining armed forces in the war-renouncing Article 9.

An opposition party, Initiatives from Osaka, has said it will help Mr Abe control more than two-thirds of seats in the Upper House as it aims to reform the nation's governing structure and promote decentralisation through constitutional amendments. The party, however, does not see a change in Article 9 as a priority.

A Kyodo News poll on Jan 30-31 found that 37.5 per cent of respondents were in favour of amending the Constitution after the Upper House election and 50.3 per cent were against, suggesting voters are cautious about giving too much power to Mr Abe.

Dr Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, has expressed concern about Mr Abe's attempt to revise Article 9, especially after the ruling coalition last year pushed controversial security Bills through Parliament that now enables the SDF to fight overseas for the first time since World War II, saying: "The DPJ and other opposition parties must unite and present attractive counter-proposals if they want to block right-wing forces from controlling two-thirds of seats in both chambers..."

Speculation is swirling that the Premier may dissolve the Lower House for a snap general election to coincide with the Upper House race but Mr Abe last month said he "is not at all considering" doing so. Komeito has expressed opposition to campaigning for more than one election at a time.

Regardless of whether there will be a twin contest, many experts suspect Mr Abe may be tempted to call a general election before a planned consumption-tax increase in April 2017, in anticipation of a public backlash against it.

  • Ko Hirano is assistant editor of the world services section in the international department of Japanese news agency Kyodo News.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2016, with the headline 'Abe likely to tighten grip on power'. Print Edition | Subscribe