Spotlight: Japan's ruling coalition maintains control of upper house, falls short of key threshold

Source: Xinhua| 2019-07-22 11:29:59|Editor: Shi Yinglun
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TOKYO, July 22 (Xinhua) -- Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) -led coalition headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won the upper house election on Sunday, with Abe saying early Monday that the voters had chosen political stability as their priority.

"We've secured a mandate to steadily carry out our policies," the prime minister said on a TV program, adding that this was his intention and that the voters had acted as he had expected.

But for Abe and those who support amending the Constitution, a key element of the upper house election, not achieving the two-thirds majority needed in the poll to call a national referendum on the issue will be something of a blow.

The LDP and its coalition Komeito ally, coupled with other pro-amendment forces, secured 81 seats in total in the poll for the upper caucus.

In total, when including the seats that were uncontested, the coalition and supporters garnered 160 seats, below the 164 needed in the upper chamber for a call to amend the pacifist Constitution to be initiated.

Having fallen short of the requisite number of seats to smoothly push ahead with calling for the constitution to be amended and taking it to the public for a simple referendum, the prime minister along with pro-amendment forces will now need to garner the support from opposition parties.

The opposition camp, however, has remained staunchly opposed to revising Japan's supreme charter for the first time since Word War II.

On the need now for Abe to curry favor from a reluctant opposition to have any chance of amending the Constitution, Abe said that debate in parliament would be necessary.

"I hope that opposition parties will fulfill their responsibility to engage in such debate," the prime minister said.

The results in the upper house poll, however, will now make this an uphill task, as divisions have become more apparent within both ruling and opposition parties on amending the law for the first time since it came into effect in 1947, particularly the war-renouncing article 9 of the Constitution, with the LDP's own coalition partner extremely circumspect about the idea.

A two-thirds majority in the upper house would have paved the way for Abe to push forward with his legacy-led goal of amending the Constitution and clarifying the role of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), but the pro-amendment camp, with 79 seats uncontested, needed to secure a minimum of 85 seats in the poll to maintain its two-thirds majority.

The ruling bloc already holds a two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house of parliament.

Despite voter turnout in the upper house election being just 48.80 percent for the electoral districts, with the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry saying it was the second-lowest turnout in the post-war period for a national election, the poll turned out to be a big win for the main opposition party.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) had nine of the seats up for grabs but ended the vote with 17, as the party starts to gain more clout and looks ahead to future lower house elections.

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

In all of the 32 single-seat constituencies, opposition parties fielded unified candidates to better compete against the LDP, with the ruling party winning 22 and the opposition bloc taking 10 seats.

Constitutional amendment aside, the vote was also very much a public mandate on a number of other key issues.

These included Japan's sputtering economy, with the public concerned that a planned consumption tax hike from 8 to 10 percent slated for October this year, might plunge the nation into recession, as was the case when tax here was raised from 5 to 8 percent.

In the months after the consumption tax was raised to 8 from 5 percent in April 2014, Japan's economy took a hard hit, with gross domestic product shrinking an annualized 1.6 percent in the three months through September, the Cabinet Office here said at the time.

Unadjusted for price changes, the economy contracted an annualized 3 percent in the period, the Cabinet Office said.

In contrast to the ruling coalition, who advocate for the need to raise the consumption tax, yet have delayed raising it twice amid economic uncertainty, all five opposition parties are opposed to the controversial tax hike, believing more focus should be given on supporting domestic households.

The ruling coalition during the election campaign said the tax hike is needed so that revenue can be generated to boost child-care support as the parties had pledged.

The opposition camp, however, had said they were against the tax hike as they want to prioritize the living standards of households.

The election was also held against a backdrop of public consternation over a controversial pension report, which led to major concerns being raised about the government's public pension system's efficacy to comprehensively serve Japan's rapidly aging society.

Opposition parties have been rattled by the government's handling of a pension report that revealed that under the current system, an average retired couple, if they live to be 95 years old, would face a shortfall of 20 million yen (185,160 U.S. dollars).

Japan's Finance Minister Taro Aso has said the government refused to accept the report from a panel of experts formed by the Financial Services Agency, which he oversees, as its findings were not in line with the government's position on the pension system, which it believes functions effectively as the basis of finances during post-retirement years for households.

On a different yet vital note, Sunday's poll was also the first national election since laws came into effect to address gender parity, with the law stating that the number of male and female candidates running in an election should be as balanced as possible.

Twenty-eight female candidates won seats in the upper house, matching the previous record set in 2016.

Marking a record-high proportion of 28.1 percent, 104 women ran in Sunday's election, a small yet pertinent step towards gender equality in Japan's still male dominated political arena.