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Future of constitutional revision debate hangs in balance in Japan upper house poll

The leaders of seven main political parties are seen during a debate held at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on July 3, 2019. Constitutional revisions have emerged as a key point of contention during the ongoing campaign for the July 21 House of Councillors election. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

TOKYO -- The number of seats that the ruling coalition takes in the July 21 House of Councillors election will likely influence post-poll discussions on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's long-cherished constitutional amendments.

The prime minister is looking to make revisions to Japan's pacifist postwar Constitution a key point of contention. At the same time, he is trying to emphasize the economic and diplomatic achievements of his 6 1/2 years in power and calling on voters to cast their ballots for the governing bloc to stabilize the political situation.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito are cooperating closely, particularly in key swing constituencies where only one seat is up for grabs. However, Komeito remains cautious about revising the Constitution, particularly its war-renouncing Article 9.

Meanwhile, opposition parties have managed to form a united front by fielding joint candidates in districts with one contested seat, but are not necessarily unified in their campaigning.

This is the sixth nationwide Diet election since Abe returned to power in late 2012, but this is the first time that he has openly tried to make the Constitution a campaign issue.

However, Komeito opposes the move, with party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi telling reporters on July 1, "There aren't many political parties that openly say, 'We never have those kinds of discussions.' I don't think the issue will appeal to voters."

The prime minister has proposed adding a paragraph explicitly stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Article 9 while retaining its war-renouncing paragraph 1, and paragraph 2 banning Japan from possessing any "war potential."

At a debate between the leaders of seven major political parties on July 3, Yamaguchi said, "Constitutional reform isn't immediately necessary for the current administration's work." The Komeito chief also did not mention the constitutional issue in a speech in Kobe on July 4 as he kicked off his party's election campaign. The party states in its campaign pledges that defining the SDF in Article 9 "should be discussed cautiously."

A senior member of Komeito says, "Provisions other than Article 9 should be actively discussed." However, it is obvious that the prime minister's ultimate goal is revising Article 9, and a growing number of Komeito members are wary that Prime Minister Abe will step up pressure on the junior coalition partner to cooperate in amending the clause following the July 21 poll.

"Why should the SDF be explicitly provided for? The issue relating to Article 9 could cause a split in the public," said a high-ranking Komeito official.

Fully aware of Komeito's wariness, Prime Minister Abe is approaching conservative opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and even the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) to win their support for constitutional revisions.

Under Article 96 of the Constitution, constitutional revisions can be initiated through a concurring vote of two-thirds of all members of each Diet chamber before being put to a national referendum. Those in favor of constitutional reform currently occupy two-thirds of seats in both chambers.

Five opposition parties and groups objecting to or cautious about constitutional amendment have fielded joint candidates in constituencies where only one seat is available in a bid to block pro-revision forces from retaining two-thirds of upper house seats. The five include the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the DPFP and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP).

Such a united front has proven effective in beating ruling bloc candidates in single-seat districts to a certain extent. In the 2013 upper house election, opposition parties lost 29 of 31 single-seat races because the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan and the JCP competed with each other in some of these districts. In contrast, in the chamber's 2016 poll, jointly fielded opposition candidates won 11 of these constituencies, losing in 21.

This time, however, opposition parties have failed to maintain unity in campaigning. The CDP and the DPFP are only passively supporting each other's candidates in districts where one seat is being contested. This is largely because the CDP, which prioritizes pursuing its own policies, is reluctant to fully cooperate with the DPFP.

The JCP, which is the most enthusiastic about the opposition united front, fielded its own candidates in the Tottori-Shimane and Tokushima-Kochi constituencies in western Japan as independents instead of officially endorsing them in a bid to win votes from those supporting other opposition parties.

The ruling bloc has lambasted election cooperation between the JCP and other opposition parties despite differences in basic constitutional and security policies, calling it "collusion" for the sole purpose of winning the election.

Meanwhile, a Financial Services Agency working group report stating that an elderly couple would need at least 20 million yen in addition to public pension benefits to sustain a 30-year post-retirement life has raised public concerns about their livelihoods and the sustainability of the public pension system, casting a shadow over the election.

(Japanese original by Shuhei Endo, Akira Murao, Minami Nomaguchi and Itsuo Tokubo, Political News Department, and Ryosuke Abe, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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