TOKYO – Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won big in Sunday’s (July 21) Upper House election, but fell just short of the numbers required to push through a revision of the pacifist Constitution.
Otherwise, there were few surprises amid the lowest voter turnout since 1995, although the LDP lost in key battlegrounds like Akita and Okinawa, where defence issues took centrestage.
Still, after Sunday’s big win, LDP secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai told a radio programme that it “will not at all be strange” were Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to seek another term as party chief beyond September 2021, given the stability he has brought to Japanese politics.
Internal LDP rules have already been changed once to allow Mr Abe to remain party leader for a third straight three-year term, and hence prime minister.
A fourth consecutive term will mean, barring any electoral upsets, that Mr Abe could stay in power until 2024. He will rewrite the record as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November. Mr Abe said on Sunday that he has not given any thought to the idea of another term.
A tally as of 1am local time (midnight Singapore time) showed the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito having won 69 of the 124 seats up for grabs. The opposition clinched 50 seats, with another five unaccounted for.
There are 245 seats in the Upper House, whose lawmakers serve six-year terms. A vote is held every three years to elect half the chamber, which cannot be dissolved for a snap election.
Much attention was paid to whether the pro-constitutional revision alliance comprising the LDP, Komeito, as well as the Nippon Ishin no Kai and other independents will keep its two-third majority, or 164 seats, in the Upper House in the election. It had 157 seats as at 1am.
The top law, which Mr Abe is targeting a revision by next year, has not been changed since its enactment in 1947. The Upper House election, Mr Abe said, was one where voters will “either choose a party that will discuss constitutional revision, or politicians who do not fulfil their responsibilies and refuse to even hold these discussions”.
He needs the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in each of the two Houses of Parliament before constitutional revision can be put to a public referendum. The alliance already had the numbers in the Lower House.
The losses in Akita and Okinawa will also complicate the government’s defence strategy. Akita residents, angered by a flawed ground survey for a plan to install the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system, ousted the LDP incumbent. The LDP also lost in Okinawa to an independent who opposes the relocation of a US Marine Corps air base.
Voter turnout was low due to public apathy, despite businesses like Patagonia closing its stores to allow staff to vote, and eateries such as ramen chain Ippudo offering discounts to those who prove they have cast their votes.
Another possible reason was the heavy rain that lashed the southwestern island of Kyushu on Sunday, triggering widespread floods and landslide warnings.
Voter turnout is expected to fall under 50 per cent for the first time since 1995. It was just 30.1 per cent as at 7.30pm, 6.03 percentage points lower than at the same time in the last Upper House election in 2016. Another 16.0 per cent cast their ballots in early voting.
Among the winners were Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko, 56, who retained his seat in Wakayama Prefecture, and former Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa, 48, who won one of the four seats up for grabs in Tokyo.
But LDP incumbents were ousted in Akita, Iwate, Niigata, Oita, Shiga and Yamagata prefectures.
In Akita, the LDP’s Mr Matsuji Nakaizumi, 40, was booted in favour of an independent candidate Ms Shizumi Terata, 44, as residents expressed their anger over a flawed ground survey for the government’s plan to install the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system.
She has vowed to block the deployment of the system in Akita. Another independent candidate, Tetsumi Takara, 65, who won in Okinawa over an LDP rookie, has also vowed to oppose the controversial relocation of a US Marine air base.
Over in Niigata, the LDP’s Mr Ichiro Tsukada, 55, who had resigned as a junior minister in April after making brazen remarks seen as influence peddling, lost to another independent candidate, Ms Sakura Uchikoshi, 51.
In Iwate, the LDP’s Mr Tatsuo Hirano, 65, lost to independent candidate Mr Takanori Yokosawa, 47, a former Paralympian who represented Japan in alpine skiing.
Besides Mr Yokosawa, the poll was also historic for the election of Mr Yasuhiko Funago, 61, who is largely paralysed due to ALS, a neurological disorder where nerves in the brain and spinal cord are steadily destroyed. He won a seat with the newly-founded Reiwa Shinsengumi group.
The Diet’s largest opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, also made gains, increasing its seat count from 24 to at least 32.
During the campaign hustings, Mr Abe stressed the stability of his administration after 6½ years in power, citing an improving economy and a nation regaining its international clout.
Several issues dominated the election, including a scheduled consumption tax increase from 8 to 10 per cent in October to fund social security initiatives.
Mr Abe has already delayed the hike twice, after an increase from 5 to 8 per cent in April 2014 led to a recession. An NHK exit poll showed that 57 per cent of voters opposed the hike.
Mr Abe’s desire to revise the Constitution, which has remained unchanged since its enactment in 1947, was also came on the radar.
The central plank of his proposal is to add a clause to the war-renouncing Article 9 to enshrine the status of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), so as to remove any doubt of their legitimacy. But there are fears that this will lead to a slippery slope towards greater militarisation.
An NHK exit poll showed 36 per cent of voters in favour, 33 per cent against, and 31 per cent undecided.
Political scientist Yu Uchiyama of the University of Tokyo said that Mr Abe might be forced to compromise for a smoother path towards revision, noting that several other parties are open to the idea of an amendment without Article 9.
“If Mr Abe wants to go down in the record books for successfully changing the Constitution, it may be politically easier for him to do so without changing Article 9.”