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Citizens gather for a campaign rally ahead of Sunday's election.   © Kyodo

Big electoral win to aid Abe's quest for constitutional reform

Strong showing by liberals could prompt regrouping among opposition

| Japan

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition appears set to win a comfortable majority in Sunday's lower house election, an outcome that could boost his effort to revise Japan's pacifist constitution and prompt a regrouping among defeated opposition parties.

The key threshold is a two-thirds majority -- the number required to initiate the revision process in both chambers of the Diet. If the coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner Komeito wins 310 seats in the 465-member lower house, Abe likely would see the result as a solid voter mandate and proceed with his revision plan.

Abe could have his LDP draw up an amendment proposal within the year to initiate the process in the Diet session that starts in January. He aims to have a revised charter take effect in 2020.

The LDP's platform for this election promises four specific changes to the constitution, including enshrining Japan's Self-Defense Forces in the war-renouncing Article 9 and making education free.

Divided on details

But changing Article 9, one of Abe's highest ambitions, would demand careful negotiations even if the ruling bloc retains its two-thirds majority. Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi remains hesitant, saying recently that "more than half" of the Japanese public is unconvinced of the need to write the SDF into the charter. Bringing Komeito on board would be the first hurdle for the LDP to clear.

If the LDP-Komeito bloc falls short of 310 seats, the conservative opposition Japan Innovation Party could lift the pro-revision camp over that line. Abe likely would seek assistance from Japan Innovation in any case, as the party favors altering Article 9. But prospects for that particular change could dim if a fourth party's cooperation becomes necessary: Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's Kibo no To, or Party of Hope, came out against an explicit mention of the SDF during the campaign.

In that case, free education -- which all of the main parties support -- could become the focus of constitutional revision efforts. But those groups have yet to discuss the wording for such a change, and hammering out the details likely would prove a challenge. If the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party becomes the largest opposition force, anti-revisionists could slow the process, as Komeito has long said the top opposition party's cooperation would be essential for any change to take place.

Rivals jockey for position

A strong showing by the Constitutional Democrats would bring other ramifications as well, pitting the party against Koike's Party of Hope for leadership among the opposition. Both parties draw much of their membership from the Democratic Party: When chief Seiji Maehara urged lower house Democrats to run under the Hope banner, more liberal members at odds with Koike on matters such as national security and a constitutional revision revolted and launched a new party instead.

Candidates on the Hope ticket held 57 seats in the last parliament. If that figure falls Sunday, Koike's standing in her own party would suffer. Upper house Democrats, who retain that party's name, could demand Maehara resign as party leader, or try to unseat him.

The Constitutional Democrats appear to be gaining ground on the Party of Hope, the newest Nikkei poll found. Should the Constitutional Democrats become the top opposition bloc, upper house lawmakers and former lower house Democrats now running as independents might join or caucus with that party, rather than Hope as Maehara would like.

"We're going to charge forward, our new flag held high," leader Yukio Edano said -- a bad sign for those who wish to see the Democratic Party reunite.

Abe previously said he would resign if the LDP and Komeito lost their majority. But that appears unlikely: Polls from various sources forecast the ruling bloc coming in far above the 233-seat line.

Abenomics, education, performance pay

A decisive victory would also be seen as validating Abenomics policies, enabling bold fiscal spending and large-scale monetary easing by the Bank of Japan to continue.

A renewed Abe government would proceed on a plan to divert part of the proceeds from a consumption tax hike slated for 2019, compiling specific policies by the end of the year. The plan aims to have a 2 trillion yen ($17.6 billion) spending package in place by 2020 that would make child care and preschool free as well as gradually expand free higher education, now restricted to certain populations such as low-income households.

The latest Nikkei poll projects the ruling bloc taking around 300 seats, giving Abe and his cabinet a decisive handle on Diet affairs. A party or coalition can chair every standing committee in the lower house with just 244 seats, and hold a majority on all of those bodies with 261.

Such dominance would enable the ruling coalition to advance other priority legislation, such as a bill to create a performance-based pay system for white-collar workers. These priorities also include authorizing so-called integrated resorts that offer casino gambling, which has proven divisive within the LDP.

But heavy losses for the ruling bloc could bring a course correction for Abenomics. Most expect monetary easing would continue in the short term. But plans for the consumption tax hike -- and for the proceeds -- would be reviewed, while the white-collar exemption bill likely would be shelved once again.


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