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Election win puts Japan's ruling party in position to change the constitution

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is all smiles on July 11 following his party's victory in upper house elections the day before. (Photo by Makoto Okada)

TOKYO Japan's ruling coalition has secured a supermajority in the upper house, putting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a position to set in motion his long-held ambition of revising the country's constitution.

The Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner Komeito together won more than 61 of the 121 seats up for grabs in the 242-seat House of Councillors on July 10. The biggest opposition Democratic Party failed to maintain its 45 seats contested in the election, the first national poll in which 18- and 19-year-olds became eligible to vote.

Thanks to proportional representation, the LDP won six more than its 50 seats up for re-election. Combined with its 76 uncontested seats, the LDP secured a stand-alone majority in the upper house. Winning four national elections, Abe has further reinforced his grip on power. The results give him a mandate to carry on with his economic policies, known as Abenomics, and delay the consumption tax hike.

Japan is now poised to officially launch the process of revising its postwar constitution for the first time ever, as two-thirds of upper-house members support the move. These include members of the LDP, the Initiatives from Osaka party, the Party for Japanese Kokoro and three independents, as well as Komeito, which has called for "strengthening the constitution."

MIDDLE GROUND While Abe hopes to push ahead with parliamentary deliberations on amending the constitution, high hurdles remain, not least the differences of opinion within the ruling coalition and among its allies.

During televised interviews on the night of July 10, Abe stressed the need to build an accord on constitutional amendments between the ruling and opposition camps. He outlined plans for panels to be set up in the two houses of parliament during an extraordinary session expected to be convened in the second half of September, to narrow down which issues should be put on the agenda.

Abe has said amending the constitution was not an issue in the latest election. His post-poll remarks are apparently aimed at placating both Komeito and opposition lawmakers by showing he does not intend to force the issue.

The LDP also said it plans to pursue constitutional amendments that Komeito and other parties will be able to support, but that is easier said than done given the wide range of positions on what should be changed and how. The Initiatives from Osaka party, for example, is calling for structural reforms to government, such as merging cities and prefectures to form larger administrative blocs.

Any constitutional changes the Diet proposes, moreover, must be approved in a national referendum. This means Abe could face a backlash from the public if he is seen trying to ram through revisions. A failure to win enough support in a referendum would be "tantamount to a no-confidence vote in Abe," said a top official.

MIND THE NEIGHBORS China is growing alarmed over the prospect of Abe revising the constitution in a way that would expand the role of Japanese armed forces. Beijing is concerned that a closer Japan-U.S. alliance would effectively curtail its own maritime expansion and hamper its diplomacy and defense policy.

Some in China welcome the continuation of a stable government in Japan. But many leaders, as a diplomatic source pointed out, believe that a significant improvement in bilateral relations is unlikely as long as Tokyo continues to oppose Beijing over issues in the South and East China seas.

South Korea, meanwhile, remains leery of Abe's defense policy but is continuing its approach of trying to work with Japan to address matters of mutual interest, such as North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the wartime "comfort women" issue.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye confirmed the importance of promoting cooperation with Japan in the fields of security and economy when she reached an agreement with Abe on the comfort women issue at the end of last year.

Despite its reservations, Seoul sees no choice but to try to get along with Japan under Abe's leadership, an official said, adding that the Abe government is showing self-restraint in its relations with South Korea.

MONEY MATTERS Domestically, the prime minister said the government will "rev up the engine of Abenomics to the maximum" to bolster sluggish economic activity.

Attention for now is on a package of stimulus measures planned for this autumn, which some government officials forecast will be more than 10 trillion ($99.4 billion) yen.

The package will consist mainly of public works projects and may set aside 1 trillion to 2 trillion yen for disaster prevention following a series of earthquakes in Kumamoto and Oita prefectures and infrastructure improvements to promote tourism.

Including the effects of the planned stimulus, the Japanese economy is forecast to grow 0.8% in real terms in fiscal 2016 and 0.9% the following year, according to Nomura Securities, much slower than the government's target of 2% growth.

Prior to the upper house election, Abe decided to again delay raising the consumption tax to 10%. He said some policies planned on the assumption of the tax hike going ahead will be implemented regardless. These will be a focal point in the year-end budget compilation.

Abe has shown a positive stance on increasing pension payments, something Komeito has strongly urged. But providing additional payments without securing funding sources would make fiscal rehabilitation, a key policy goal of the Abe government, even more difficult to achieve.


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