Official campaigning for Japan's Upper House election on July 21 kicks off with Nomination Day today, as more than 360 candidates are set to vie for the 124 seats up for grabs in the 245-seat chamber of the Diet.
The Upper House, or the House of Councillors, is the less powerful of Japan's bicameral Diet, which is what its Parliament is called. The term for each lawmaker runs for six years, which means an election is held every three years to choose lawmakers for half of the chamber.
Unlike the Lower House, it cannot be dissolved for a snap poll and, unlike in a general election, the Upper House election will not lead to any change of government.
But much attention will still be on whether the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) can secure a solid mandate that will give momentum to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's long-cherished goal of revising the pacifist Constitution for the first time since its enactment in 1947.
To do so, he needs the support of at least two-thirds of parliamentarians in the Lower and Upper Houses, before putting the decision to a public vote where a majority is required.
Mr Abe, speaking yesterday at a party leaders' debate at the Japan National Press Club, emphasised it was crucial to revise the Constitution to include a mention of the Self-Defence Force, so as to remove all doubt as there are some views that the military is an illegitimate body.
Still, Mr Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads the LDP's coalition partner Komeito, said he felt a revision was "not immediately necessary" and requires more thorough debate.
Key election issues
As campaigning officially kicks off for Japan’s Upper House election on July 21, The Straits Times looks at some of the key issues that may take centre stage.
1. CONSTITUTIONAL REVISION
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to revise the 72-year-old war-renouncing Constitution by making four key changes:
• Include a mention of the Self-Defence Force in the pacifist Article 9;
• Guarantee education regardless of a child’s economic background;
• Allow emergency Cabinet orders during national emergencies; and
• Ensure that even the least populated prefecture will be represented in the Upper House.
But any revision to Article 9 is a political hot potato as many are wary that any such amendment will mark a slippery slope towards militarisation
2. CONSUMPTION TAX HIKE
Mr Abe has said that, barring an economic crisis of Lehman proportions, he will proceed with a hike of the sales tax from 8 per cent to 10 per cent in October. The public generally agrees with this move as necessary to fund social security programmes, but the opposition is arguing that the time is not right for any sales tax hike given the uncertain economic environment amid trade tensions
3. PENSION CONTROVERSY
A report last month by the Financial Services Agency said a typical elderly couple will need 20 million yen (S$252,000) in savings on top of their pension benefits to fund their daily expenses for 30 years post-retirement. The subsequent furore led Tokyo to retract the report, though not before it raised questions about the social safety net.
4. DEFENCE CONTROVERSIES
Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya was forced to apologise to Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures after faulty Defence Ministry geographical surveys to identify potential sites to host the Aegis Ashore anti-ballistic missile system. And over in Okinawa, the relocation of the US Futenma base to the coastal Henoko district continues to be a political headache for the Liberal Democratic Party
The LDP election manifesto also seeks to burnish Mr Abe's credentials as a consummate statesman who has elevated Japan's standing globally. It adds: "We will lead solidarity and rule-making in the international community to protect our country's safety and national interests."
Mr Abe also reaffirmed a move to raise the sales tax to 10 per cent from 8 per cent in October, but added that he saw no need for another raise for at least 10 years.
He has already twice delayed the planned hike since the previous increase to 8 per cent from 5 per cent in April 2014 led to a recession, and said yesterday that "there was no magic wand" for stronger social security policies without increasing the public burden.
The fragmented opposition has said it will unite to field a single candidate for each seat as far as possible to prevent multi-cornered fights, but media polls and political experts still expect the LDP to win handsomely.
A survey by the Nikkei and TV Tokyo released on Sunday showed 44 per cent intended to vote for the LDP, far surpassing the 18 per cent that was recorded for the second-most popular option - "have not decided". The main opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, managed only 14 per cent.
The survey showed voters are most concerned about social security (54 per cent), the consumption tax hike (34 per cent) and the economy (27 per cent). Only 13 per cent said they deemed constitutional revision a key issue for the election.
On constitutional change, 45 per cent said they were against it while 37 per cent were in favour.
A separate poll by public broadcaster NHK likewise showed the same chief areas of concern for voters, who were also split on constitutional revision, with 27 per cent in favour, 30 per cent against and 33 per cent undecided.
Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano told The Straits Times the election is "deceptively insignificant", given what is at stake for constitutional change.
In this regard, he noted the overall election fatigue and the buzzkill following the hyped-up possibility of a double election as reasons people may not feel invested to vote. As it is, election turnouts have been hovering around 50 per cent.
"I think Abe wants to make the election as boring and as uneventful as possible, as his chances of winning a solid majority will increase if he manages to maintain a low turnout," he added.