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Abe faces major election hurdle in bid to amend Constitution

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- In the House of Councillors election scheduled for this summer, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to see political forces in favor of constitutional amendment maintain a two-thirds majority in the chamber, a prerequisite for initiating such a change in the Diet.

Many in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), however, are concerned that the party would lose seats in the summer poll, marking a setback from its landslide victory scored in the upper chamber contest in 2013. While officially setting a goal of simply "maintaining a majority by the ruling coalition," the governing bloc is setting its sights on cementing its foothold in the upcoming race to implement constitutional amendments.

"I would like to secure victory in the upper house election through substantial policy debate," Prime Minister Abe said as he addressed a meeting in Tokyo on Jan. 7. Yet the prospects for bringing about his cherished goal of amending the Constitution is nowhere in sight. The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and other key opposition parties are stepping up their anti-amendment drive in the lead-up to the upper house poll, while the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito has maintained reservations about constitutional change.

After pro-constitutional revision forces secured the two-thirds majority necessary to initiate revision to the supreme law in the 2016 upper house election, Prime Minister Abe proposed specifying the existence of the Self-Defense Forces in war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution in May 2017. The LDP subsequently drew up its own draft revision to the supreme law in March 2018.

However, deliberations in the Diet in this regard were stalled due to a confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties over the favoritism allegations involving two school operators, Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, which were linked to Prime Minister Abe or his wife Akie. It is already becoming difficult for the upper house to initiate constitutional revision ahead of the summer poll.

For Abe to keep his hopes for constitutional change alive after the upper chamber contest, he needs to ensure pro-amendment forces maintain the two-thirds majority in the chamber in the race. Should the LDP clinch a sweeping victory in the election while pro-amendment forces maintain their seat strength necessary to initiate constitutional revision without the assistance of major opposition parties, Abe could once again take the initiative in debate toward changing the supreme law. "If things turn out that way, we will no longer be able to continue ignoring constitutional change," said a mid-ranking Komeito official.

However, hurdles remain high for the pro-amendment forces to keep their two-thirds majority in the upcoming election. The forces, comprising the LDP, Komeito, Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), the Party of Hope and independents belonging to the LDP-led parliamentary group, currently hold 165 seats in the upper house, just one seat above the 164-seat majority. As the pro-revision forces will need to secure 87 of the 88 seats they hold that will be up for grabs this coming election, an LDP former Cabinet minister offered dismal prospects that the pro-amendment forces would lose their two-thirds majority.

Amid such speculation, pro-amendment forces are placing their expectations high on the opposition Democratic Party for the People (DPFP), which encompasses legislators in favor of constitutional amendment.

"I want the DPFP to fare well (in the race)," said an aide to Prime Minister Abe. However, DPFP leader Yuichiro Tamaki has leveled criticism against Abe's goal of writing the SDF into the Constitution's Article 9, saying such a move "would expand the scope of the right to self-defense in an unlimited manner." Furthermore, if pro-revision forces dip significantly below the two-thirds majority, that could end up destabilizing the Abe administration itself. "If the prime minister wants to make constitutional amendment the focal point of contention in the race, he should venture to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap general election to coincide with the upper house poll," said a conservative LDP legislator.

In order for Abe to maintain his initiative in steering his administration, the LDP will ideally need to uphold its single-party majority in the upper chamber race. The party's strong showing in the 2016 upper house contest, in which it secured a single-party majority in the chamber, was the first feat of its kind for the party since 1989. The LDP currently holds a 123-seat majority in the chamber, and will need to secure 67 seats in the upcoming race in order to maintain its own sole majority. The figure is more than the 65 seats the party had won in the 2013 upper house poll.

The key to the LDP's success will lie in constituencies where only one seat each will be up for grabs. In the 2016 upper house election, the LDP beat joint opposition candidates in 21 of the 32 constituencies where one seat was contested, while the opposition managed to secure the remaining 11. The opposition parties are poised to join hands with each other this coming race to stage a one-on-one race against ruling bloc candidates in such constituencies. Many in the LDP speculate that it would be difficult for the party to re-enact its sweeping victory in the 2013 election, in which the LDP emerged victorious in 29 of the 31 constituencies where one seat each was contested. Therefore, only a few in the party are sticking to the goal of keeping its single-party majority in the upcoming race.

The LDP has already promised to withhold from fielding its own candidates in the five electoral districts that Komeito attaches particular weight to: Saitama and Kanagawa constituencies near Tokyo, Aichi in central Japan, Hyogo to the west and Fukuoka in the south. The LDP has specifically pledged not to field a second candidate to add to its incumbent in the respective districts. This came in response to Komeito's pressure that the two parties' electoral cooperation would be torn apart if the LDP was to field its own candidates in those districts.

During a Jan. 4 Fuji Television program, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga remarked, "It is essential for the ruling coalition to win a majority" in the upper house poll. This objective, however, is significantly easier to achieve than the goal of the LDP maintaining a sole, single-party majority in the race.

As the LDP and Komeito have a combined 70 seats in the upper chamber that will not be contested in the upcoming election, the parties will only need to secure 53 seats in the race out of the 78 seats they have that will be up for grabs this coming election. Sixty-seven of those 78 seats are held by the LDP and the remaining 11 by Komeito.

"It is unthinkable for the number of seats we will win to dip below this figure (53 seats)," said an individual linked to the LDP. This opinion was echoed by many in the party.

However, if the LDP loses many of the contested seats while the ruling coalition maintains the majority in the upper chamber, the Abe administration would have trouble keeping itself together and moves to aim for post-Abe leadership within the party could accelerate. As the LDP suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2007 upper house poll during Abe's first stint as prime minister by garnering just 37 seats, the prime minister offered a modest view during his TV appearance on public broadcaster NHK on Jan. 6, saying, "The focal point is for us to see all LDP candidates win."

(Japanese original by Nozomu Takeuchi and Akira Murao, Political News Department)

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