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Reform of Japan's 'pacifist' constitution clause at stake as super-majority slips from PM Abe

Reform of Japan's 'pacifist' constitution clause at stake as super-majority slips from PM Abe
The ruling coalition led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is poised for a solid win in the upper house of parliament. Still, early projections show it won't secure the super-majority needed to change the constitution.

Japan held elections for the upper house of its parliament, the Diet, on Sunday. After initial evaluations signaled that the ruling coalition was heading for the two-thirds majority, more recent estimates showed it falling behind. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner, the Komeito party, are poised to win at least 69 of the contested seats, according to projections by national broadcaster NHK. Voter turnout is the lowest in two decades at around 48 percent.

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The ruling coalition's chances were damaged by recent controversy around the social security system and the upcoming sales tax hike. Still, Abe insists that his goal was to retain a simple majority for the sake of “stability.”

“Many said it would be extremely difficult to gain a majority when advocating tax hikes. But we have the public's understanding. This upper house election was not about winning two-thirds of the seats, it was about maintaining stability. We achieved that goal,” Abe said after the seeing the early results.

Make or break majority

The coalition's victory looks solid, but well short of the 85 seats required to retain the super-majority – the real deal-breaker for PM Abe's ambitious plan to change the country's pacifist constitution. He wants to further legitimize the Japanese military – the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) – by altering Article 9, imposed by the occupying US forces when the constitution was adopted in 1947. Technically, it forbids Japan from maintaining a war-capable military force and waging wars, but in reality it has been stretched very far through additional laws – each time prompting speculation of the SDF being unconstitutional altogether.

Under the Japanese electoral system, half of the 245 seats in the upper house of the Diet are contested every three years. A referendum on constitutional change can be initiated by a two-thirds majority in both the lower and upper houses – and the ruling coalition, combined with pro-revision opposition parties, held it before Sunday's polls. Despite the setback, Abe said the vote has shown that society is ready to debate the controversial reform.

“Of course, we cannot take the timing as a given, but I would like to achieve [the constitutional reform] somehow during my term,” the PM stated. Abe does not have that much time left, as his third LDP presidency is set to end in fall 2021 – and the party’s rules prohibit a fourth term.

“We will now try and gain the support of two-thirds of lawmakers on the constitutional amendment through discussions at the Commission on the Constitution. We asked voters if they want discussions or not... and they gave us a majority. So we would like to have a thorough debate.”

Society on the fence

It will likely take a lot of debate before the matter is settled, given recent polls that show just how split the Japanese are on the issue. Besides being wary of revising Article 9, many are against letting Abe change the constitution in any fashion at all. According to a recent survey by Kyodo News, 42 percent backed Abe's efforts, while 54 were opposed to it.

In the end, a revision of Article 9 would largely be symbolic – in all but name, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces have been a full-fledged, modern and very well-funded army for a long time. Still, changing its official status would be a large victory for politicians who want to further militarize the country and relieve the military from its ambiguous – and “shameful” for some – state.

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