Pacifist constitution reform at stake as Japan goes to polls

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling bloc is forecast to win a solid majority in Sunday’s upper house election.

Voters in Japan are casting ballots in an election for the upper house of parliament, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe‘s ruling bloc is looking to protect its majority and keep plans on track to amend the country’s pacifist constitution.
Exit polls show Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito are on track to win more than half the 124 seats up for grabs in Sunday’s vote, mostly due to a lacklustre opposition.
NHK public television said that the two ruling parties were sure to win from 67 to 77 seats in the upper house, according to exit polls.
Abe is pushing his LDP-led coalition as the best bet for political stability, while opposition parties have campaigned on what they call a threat to voter finances, including a potential hit on spending from an October rise in sales tax to 10 percent and strains in the public pension system with a fast-ageing population.
Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo, said the voters in Japan are not interested in the constitutional revision, with recent surveys suggesting that only seven percent think it is a priority.
“People are interested in pocketbook issues such as the state of the economy, which way wages and pensions are heading and the expected tax hike,” he said.
“The economy seems to be stagnant and Abenomics is dead in the water. But what he has up his sleeve is that the opposition is fragmented and there is no alternative.”
Yoshiko Iida, a 45-year-old beauty therapist, agreed: “I support the current government because I see no alternative.” 
“Opposition parties are woeful,” she told AFP news agency. “I don’t want to leave power to them.”
Susumu Rokkaku, an 85-year-old male pensioner, said: “I voted for an opposition candidate but whoever is elected, nothing will change. I have no expectations.”
There are 245 seats in the upper house, about half of which are elected every three years. The ruling bloc controls 70 seats in the half of the chamber that is not being contested.
In order to secure the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional revision, Abe’s bloc and supporters would need to win 85 seats, media calculations show.
The 64-year-old leader vowed earlier this month to “clearly stipulate the role of the Self-Defense Forces in the constitution” which prohibits Japan from waging war and maintaining a military.
The provisions, imposed by the United States after World War II, are popular with the public at large, but reviled by nationalists who see them as outdated and punitive.
Surveys show voters are divided over changing the ban, with opponents worried doing so would increase the risk of Japan getting entangled in US-led conflicts. 
Any constitutional revision requires approval in a national referendum. 
Al Jazeera’s Fadi Salameh, reporting from Tokyo, said some of Japan’s neighbours opposed Abe’s plan. 
“They are afraid that it could mean Japan is heading towards remilitarisation. Abe is known to be a close friend to US President Donald Trump who has asked Japan many times to participate more in guaranteeing the security and stability of the region through military cooperation.”
Japan’s constitution has never been amended since it was enacted in 1947 and changing it would be hugely symbolic, underscoring a shift away from post-war pacifism already under way.
A win for the ruling bloc means Abe should be able to stay in power until November when he will break the record of the nation’s longest-serving premiership held by Taro Katsura, a revered politician who served three terms between 1901 and 1913.