Abe wins upper house poll but suffers constitutional reform setback

22, Jul. 2019


TOKYO, Kyodo - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition scored a solid win in Sunday's upper house election but his long-held hope of constitutional reform moved further out of reach after pro-amendment forces lost the seats essential to initiate it.

The coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, along with like-minded opposition and independent lawmakers, fell short of the 164 seats needed in the chamber to propose amending the pacifist Constitution after Sunday's election.

Abe has set his sights on having a revised Constitution in 2020 but the pro-amendment camp's failure to hold onto their two-thirds majority means the LDP leader faces the daunting task of convincing opposition parties if he wants to achieve his goal as planned.

Still, the ruling parties secured at least 63 of the 124 seats up for grabs in the House of Councillors, crossing the line set by senior party executives for determining victory. This maintains their majority in the 245-member upper house, combined with the uncontested seats they already hold.

Speaking during a TV program as results started coming in, Abe said they showed voters choosing political stability, as he had called for during the election campaign.

“We've secured a mandate to steadily carry out our politics,” Abe, who heads the LDP, said.

But the premier did not discuss the failure to retain the two-thirds majority needed to propose constitutional reform. He only expressed his hope that parliamentary debate will deepen to build a consensus with the opposition camp.

“I hope that opposition parties will fulfill their responsibility” and engage in such debate, Abe said.

The supreme law has never been amended since it took effect in 1947.

Recent media surveys showed many voters did not regard it as a top priority issue during the campaign, as they focused more on pension and tax issues as well as economic policies.

The ruling and opposition parties remain divided over revising the war-renouncing Article 9, a symbol of Japan's postwar pacifism, as has been the case among the public. Even within the ruling coalition, many lawmakers from Komeito are cautious about the idea.

When asked about expectations within the LDP that Abe as party leader will seek another term beyond his current one ending in 2021, he said he is not considering such an option “at all.”

With 79 uncontested seats, the pro-amendment camp needed to win at least 85 seats in Sunday's election to maintain its two-thirds majority in the upper house, necessary for proposing a constitutional amendment and calling a national referendum on the issue. The ruling bloc has a two-thirds majority in the powerful House of Representatives.

With 370 candidates vying for the 124 seats, 74 were chosen in specific districts and 50 through proportional representation. The election was held as the six-year term for half of the upper house members expires on July 28.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is expected to increase its seats to at least 17 from nine before the election but the number of seats secured by the Democratic Party for the People will likely fall from eight, according to Kyodo News projections and early returns.

The Japan Innovation Party, which backs Abe's constitutional reform plan, likely maintained its pre-election strength by winning seven. Reiwa Shinsengumi, a political group established by the actor-turned-upper house member Taro Yamamoto, got two seats.

“We will create an environment in which we can offer voters the choice of a change in government in the next lower house election,” CDPJ leader Yukio Edano said.

Opposition parties, in a bid to counterbalance the LDP, fielded unified candidates in all of the 32 single-seat constituencies. The LDP won in 22, while the opposition camp won in 10.

Turnout in the specific districts is expected to fall below the 54.70 percent in the previous upper house election in 2016 to the lowest since 1995 when it stood at 44.52 percent, according to a Kyodo News projection.

After twice postponing a plan to raise the consumption tax from 8 percent to 10 percent, Abe now plans to go ahead with the tax hike in October, even as a U.S.-China trade war casts a shadow over the economic outlook. More than six and a half years of “Abenomics” have brought the economy back on a recovery path but growth remains slow with tepid consumer spending.

The LDP and Komeito said the tax hike is necessary to generate revenues for expanding child-care support as promised. Opposition parties such as the CDPJ are against the tax increase, saying their focus is on protecting households.

Amid the rapid graying of the population, Japan's public pension system has also emerged as a major issue since the government's refusal to accept a report by a Financial Services Agency panel, providing the opposition with ammunition to attack Abe's government for trying to hide an inconvenient truth.

The panel estimated that an average retired couple would face a shortfall of 20 million yen ($185,000) under the current pension system if they live to be 95 years old, even though the government aims to create a society in which people can live to 100 years old without financial worries.

Due to electoral reform, the number of seats in the upper house will increase by six to 248 in 2022. Of the six, three will be added this time to bring the total number of seats to 245.

・House of Councillors election system

Lawmakers in the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of Japan's bicameral legislature, serve six-year terms. An election, in which half of the chamber's seats are contested, takes place every three years.

Due to electoral system reform in July 2018, the number of seats will rise by six from 242 to 248, in two stages. Three of the six will be added this time, meaning 124 of 245 seats are contested. At the next election in 2022, 124 of 248 seats will be up for grabs.

Members of the upper house serve a full term, unlike lawmakers in the House of Representatives, or lower house, which a prime minister can dissolve for an election at their discretion.

Its shorter, four-year term means the lower house is thought to more directly reflect the will of the people than the upper house. Japan's Constitution thereby grants more power to the lower house by giving its decisions precedence over those of the upper house.

Voters cast two ballots in the election -- one to choose electoral district representatives for 74 of the upper house's 124 contested seats, and one under a proportional representation system to fill the remaining 50 seats with parties' list candidates.

Under the proportional representation system, voters write in either the name of a political party or a specific candidate from contenders registered by parties in an open-list system.

List seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the number of ballots they receive, either in the name of the party or candidates on their list.

Once the number of seats to be allocated to each party is clear, candidates are ranked within each party according to the number of ballots they received by name. Those with the most votes will be given top priority in filling the list seats allocated to the party.

Under the revised election law, a “special quota” is being introduced for the proportional representation system for the first time, through which candidates can also be elected according to their place on a list submitted by each party, regardless of the number of votes they get.

Parties often field list candidates with a degree of public fame, such as celebrities, scholars or athletes, to draw a large number of votes.

Candidates cannot run in an electoral district and under the proportional representation system at the same time, unlike those running in lower house elections.

The minimum voting age was lowered to 18 from 20 in an amendment effective since 2016. (Kyodo)