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The Nikkei View

Japan's electorate sticks with stability

Both ruling bloc and opposition failed to stir voters' hearts in upper house election

The lack of enthusiasm for the July 21 election reflects public dissatisfaction with the options.   © Reuters

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner Komeito campaigned on a platform of stability in Japan's upper house election on July 21, while such opposition parties as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan pushed slogans like "honest politics" and "households first." Neither side gained much momentum.

Following a sluggish policy debate, the ruling coalition, which had more boots on the ground, secured more than half the seats up for election -- about the same level of success as in the last upper house race three years ago.

Given the rampant speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could dissolve the lower house to hold a double election, many citizens likely lost interest when he decided not to.

"It was like a minor league game held to make up for a canceled major league game," an observer said.

Voter turnout fell under 50% to reach the second-lowest in postwar history for an upper house election. Also behind the low turnout was the fact that the ruling coalition focused more on not showing weakness than beating the opposition head-on. In this year's regular Diet session, the ruling coalition avoided submitting bills that would pit it against the opposition.

Revising the constitution topped the LDP's campaign promises. The question was whether pro-revision lawmakers could maintain the two-thirds supermajority needed to set the process in motion -- a threshold they failed to reach.

That outcome should not be ignored. At the same time, it is true that the debate on the constitution became more stagnant in the three years since the LDP and pro-revision allies achieved a supermajority in both houses. Creating a solid foundation for dialogue matters more than the number of seats. The Commission on the Constitution in each house must meet periodically so that both sides can bring their opinions out into the open.

Changing the constitution requires a popular referendum. The ruling coalition must carefully contemplate whether it can win the public over if it bulldozes an amendment through the Diet.

Japanese politicians now face many difficult postelection decisions, such as whether to join a U.S.-proposed coalition to protect vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. Regaining the public's trust toward politics should be a top priority.

In light of the ruling coalition's stance that Japan cannot afford to stand still, it should leverage the political stability it has gained to tackle such long-term issues as restoring trust in the pension, health care and nursing care systems, and to rebuild the nation's finances so that future generations are not left paying our debts.

A key issue in the election was this October's planned hike in the consumption tax to 10% from 8%, with the ruling coalition pledging to stick to the plan and the opposition uniting against it. Greater support for the ruling bloc shows that more Japanese see higher taxes as necessary to a certain extent, given the growing costs of the safety net in a shrinking and graying society.

The Abe government must ensure that the hike is carried out smoothly. But further changes to the social welfare system and finances are also needed. With Japan's goal of a primary balance surplus by fiscal 2025 still far from a reality, the government must start discussing what comes after the new 10% tax rate.

Japan will need to implement bold reforms to curb ballooning social welfare costs, and, if that does not suffice, consider further consumption tax hikes and other sources of revenue. Lawmakers must spark up debate for future generations, not shy away from it as they did in this past election.

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