Abe Seeks to Expand Majority: A Guide to Japan’s Election

Abe Rivals Struggle to Gain Ground
  • First time for 18 and 19-year-olds to vote in national poll
  • Proponents of constitutional change may gain super-majority

Japanese voters head to the polls Sunday for an upper house election that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has billed as a gauge of backing for his economic policies. The opposition is aiming to prevent the ruling coalition from winning a two-thirds majority that would allow the premier to embark on a process of revising the nation’s pacifist constitution.

Half the seats in the house are contested every three years, with lawmakers serving a six-year term. Sunday’s election doesn’t affect Abe’s position as premier, which he has held since winning the 2012 election in the more powerful lower house. In contention are 121 of the 242 seats.

The Ambition

A series of large-scale Japanese media surveys show that Abe’s coalition -- his Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner Komeito -- and its conservative allies may reach the 162 seats required in the upper house to enable him to press ahead with his long-held ambition of constitutional change. But it’s unclear when, or if, he would tackle the pacifist Article 9, given the reluctance of Komeito -- the LDP’s Buddhist-backed coalition partner -- to support a revision.

Widespread public attachment to a document seen by many as the basis of post-war democracy would make revision a drawn-out process and distract attention from the economy. It also would require a national referendum.

“Even if the LDP and its allies manage to win a pro-constitution revision super majority, it is far from guaranteed that the government will be able to proceed swiftly with revision,” Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, said in an e-mailed note. “In fact, the campaign has revealed the extent to which the LDP and Komeito disagree on what should be revised and how quickly it should occur.”

The Options

Abe says the country needs political continuity at a time of growing global uncertainty, underscored by shocks such as the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union and the killing of seven Japanese in a terrorist attack in Bangladesh.

The main opposition Democratic Party, led by Katsuya Okada, has attempted to capitalize on concerns that Abe may switch his focus from trying to revive the economy to revising the constitution. The Democrats entered into a loose collaboration with the Japanese Communist Party in an attempt to pool the votes of those opposed to Abe and prevent him from gaining the two-thirds majority.

The Math

  • 61: The number of seats Abe’s coalition would need to achieve his stated aim of winning a majority of the 121 contended seats
  • 57: The number of seats the LDP needs to secure a majority without its coalition partner. It would be the party’s first single-handed majority in the chamber since 1989.
  • 78: The number of seats needed by the four parties in favor of revising the constitution to pin down a two-thirds majority

The Polls

The ruling coalition was likely to win between 59 and 80 of the 121 seats up for grabs, according to a nationwide poll of more than 33,000 people published by the Nikkei newspaper on Wednesday.

The Voting

Voting starts at 7 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m. Japan’s media run exit polls, which they publish as soon as voting closes. Official results will trickle out later in the evening.

The election will be the first national poll since the voting age was lowered to 18 from 20, adding about 2.4 million people to the electoral rolls -- bringing the total to about 107 million. Turnout tends to be low among young people. In the 2014 lower house election, 32.6 percent of people in their 20s voted, compared with 68 percent of those in their 60s. The expected low overall turnout on Sunday is likely work in the LDP’s favor.

The Risks

Abe is in danger of losing two cabinet members. Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki may lose his seat in Fukushima, which is still recovering from the 2011 nuclear disaster. Okinawa Minister Aiko Shimajiri is under threat amid renewed anger at the presence of the U.S. military on the sub-tropical island following the arrest of a U.S. base worker over the rape and killing of a 20-year-old local woman.

DP President Okada has said he wouldn’t be qualified to remain as party leader if the Democrats lose in his home region of Mie.

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