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Abe faces foggy future for upper house elections, constitutional revision

Prime Minister and LDP President Shinzo Abe, center, and other top party officials raise their fists at a party convention in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Feb. 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Tatsuro Tamaki)

TOKYO -- The annual convention of the ruling Liberal Democratic party in Tokyo on Feb. 10 revealed two major difficulties faced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- winning the general local elections in April and the House of Councillors race in the summer, and revising the Constitution.

For the premier, winning the elections is vital to pull the party and governing coalition together behind him so that he can achieve his political goals including changing the supreme law, one of his longtime wishes.

"We suffered a terrible loss in the upper house election 12 years ago, in the year of the pig (in the Chinese zodiac)," Abe told the convention in reference to the 2007 election. "I was responsible (for the loss) as the party president at that time. I never forgot this," he said, expressing his revolve to win the upcoming races.

He then turned to criticizing the now defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was in power from 2009 through 2012 after replacing the LDP. The DPJ administration was a "nightmare," Abe stressed, repeating his earlier attack on the opposition party, which has given birth to many of the splinter groups in the political arena. "The DPJ could not make decisions, and the economy slowed down, contracted and got lost," said the premier. He then emphasized that his "Abenomics" policy mix of economic stimulus and monetary easing has led to the longest economic recovery in the period after World War II and created new jobs.

Yet Abe's recent remarks, including his policy speech at the Diet in late January, lacked fresh policy proposals. Moreover, his diplomatic overtures face uncertainty. Japanese negotiators soon need to face off with their American counterparts in new trade talks. Ongoing negotiations with Russia about signing a peace treaty and wining the return of the Northern Territories claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia remain foggy with no clear prospects before the House of Councillors race.

In addition, the opposition is mounting attacks on the administration over labor statistics scandals, criticizing the government for "window-dressing" Abenomics achievements. Favoritisms scandals involving the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution school operators linked with Abe still remain unsettled.

Shigeru Ishiba, former LDP secretary-general who competed against Abe in the September 2018 presidential race, was critical of the premier's convention speech. Bashing a past administration "to stress one's righteousness can backfire," said Ishiba.

Ruling parties are said to face tough battles when both general local elections and upper chamber contest take place every 12 years, in years of the pig. In 2007, the ruling camp faced a headwind due to scandals over pension records and some Cabinet members.

The LDP, nevertheless, has managed to pick its candidates in all of the 32 single-seat constituencies in the House of Councillors, getting ahead of opposition parties such as the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) that are having trouble selecting joint candidates with other opposition parties. Winning those districts is vital in prevailing in the overall race.

Despite the lead, Abe told senior officials of major party factions over the dinner on Feb. 6, "The upper house race can go awry at any moment. We must maintain our focus."

One issue the conservative forces are worried about is if they can keep working together. In the general local elections, four gubernatorial races in Fukui in central Japan, Shimane and Tokushima in western Japan and Fukuoka in the south are to be fought by multiple conservative candidates. These contests may leave animosity among the conservatives and adversely affect the upper house race for themselves.

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai seemed to be aware of this challenge. "Even a good team gets lost without unity. We will fight this through by getting together," he said after the party convention on Feb. 10. But Nikai has been criticized by the Shizuoka prefectural chapter of the LDP for accepting opposition legislator Goshi Hosono, who hails from Shizuoka and is a longtime foe for the local LDP election machine, into his intraparty faction. When asked about this issue, Nikai appeared frustrated and said, "There is no use talking about that now. They (the prefectural chapter) should accept the situation with modesty."

--- No path visible for constitutional revision

During the party convention, Abe also mentioned his long-time goal of amending the supreme law. "Finally, it is time to work toward constitutional revision, which has been our dearest wish since the establishment of the party," he said. Despite Abe's pitch, no sign of politicians and voters rallying behind his cause is visible.

The LDP policy for this year says in its preamble that the party will "revive national debate and find a path toward revising the Constitution that meets the new era." It did not touch on submitting draft revisions to the supreme law to the Diet, a goal stated in the 2017 policy, nor included an independent chapter like its 2018 policy on the issue explaining four revisions the party is seeking such as writing the existence of the Self-Defense Forces in the law. This year's platform is markedly cold to this issue compared to last year, when the party made extra efforts to put together intraparty opinions on constitutional revision before the convention.

The premier still maintains his objective of changing the supreme law in 2020. But reaching that goal would be fairly tough should pro-revision forces lose a two-thirds majority in the upper chamber. That strength is necessary for the national legislature to propose a change in the Constitution for a national referendum.

The LDP constitutional change headquarters organized its first national meeting of regional chiefs on Feb. 9, where director Hakubun Shimomura told participants to make efforts so that the general local elections would give impetus to changing the Constitution and the party will back up such efforts. However, only 123 of 289 party branches for one-seat constituencies of the House of Representatives have set up constitutional revision headquarters. This slowness on the part of regional organizations is a source of concern for Shimomura.

The governing party wants to present its draft changes to the Constitution to the constitutional commissions of the two Diet chambers during the current session of the national legislature. But many opposition parties including the CDP are against such a move. Trying to ram its plans through the commissions would adversely affect the upper chamber competition in the summer, say some LDP officials. An upper house lawmaker of the ruling party said, "We can deal with the Constitution after we win the race. We shouldn't compete over the issue in the election."

The premier and the ruling party are apparently trying to ride over the House of Councillors race by keeping conservative voters behind them with a promise of constitutional revision, and they will try to find an opportunity to propose the change to the Diet after such a victory.

(Japanese original by Nozomu Takeuchi and Hiroyuki Tanaka, Political News Department)

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