Asia-Pacific

Japan election: Pacifist constitution reform at stake as voters cast ballots

A voter casts a ballot in Japan's upper house parliamentary election. Source: AAP

Japan's incumbent Liberal Democratic Party is expected to win upper house elections despite underemployment, stagnant wages and weak consumption.

Japanese voters are voting in upper house elections which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party is expected to win despite a weak economy.

The vote could determine whether Abe's dream of revising the post-war, US-drafted pacifist constitution can be kept alive.

Representatives of a local election administration commission show the earliest two voters the empty ballot box before they cast their votes.
Representatives of a local election administration commission show the earliest two voters the empty ballot box before they cast their votes.
AAP

Media surveys show Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner on track to win more than half the 124 seats up for grabs in the election, possibly strengthening their majority in the chamber.

Up in the air, however, is whether the ruling bloc and its allies will keep the two-thirds “super majority” needed to begin the process of revising the constitution’s pacifist Article 9 to further legitimize the military, a controversial step.

“If they lost it (the two-thirds majority), constitutional revision would be impossible,” said Steven Reed, an emeritus professor at Chuo University.

The charter 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.

Article 9, if taken literally, bans maintenance of a military but has been stretched to allow armed forces for self-defense. Surveys show voters are divided over changing it, with opponents worried doing so would increase the risk of Japan getting entangled in US-led conflicts.

Stability first?

Abe, who took office in December 2012 pledging to restart the economy and bolster defense, is pushing his LDP-led coalition as the best bet for political stability.

Opposition parties have focused on what they call a threat to voter finances, including a potential hit on spending from an October rise in the sales tax to 10% and strains in the public pension system in the shrinking, fast-ageing population.

Voter Yu Suzuki, 30, in Niigata, northern Japan, said she was worried about pensions but would vote LDP. “Compared to other parties, the LDP feels more secure,” she said.

A resident casts her vote into a balloting box on a fixed route bus operating in the mountain district in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.
A resident casts her vote into a balloting box on a fixed route bus operating in the mountain district in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.
AAP

The ruling bloc along with the Japan Innovation Party and independents open to constitutional revision need to win 85 seats to keep a two-thirds majority, media calculations show.

Voter interest in the poll has been tepid and turnout could fall below the 54.7% in the last upper house poll in 2016.

“We cannot change our society just by complaining, and I believe young people who have complaints should raise their voices,” said 37-year-old Tokyo voter Junichi Nakada.

“Although I’m not young any more, I came to vote today to raise voter turnout.”

Voting ends at 8 pm (1100 GMT) with media likely to call the outcome late at night or early on Monday morning. Official results are not expected until Monday.

Abe has led his party to victory in five national elections since returning as LDP leader in 2012, and is on track to become Japan’s longest-serving premier if he stays in office until November. But the victories have been aided by a fragmented opposition and low turnout.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan was expected to increase its seats but remain dwarfed by the LDP.

Some voters said domestic issues were only one part of the picture.

“I hope that the next ruling party and leaders will be able to take a solid look not only at Japan’s domestic issues but also how Japan works with neighboring countries,” said Noriko Yasuhara, 63.

“Or with regards to relations with the United States, what Japan’s role will be.”

Polling stations opened at 7am (0800 AEST) on Sunday across Japan for tens of millions of voters who will elect 124 lawmakers in the House of Councillors. They will close at 8pm.

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