A general election for half of the total seats of the Upper House of Japanese Diet was held last Sunday with the expected outcome of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and coalition partner Komei Party's sweeping victory. Although the ruling block had been in difficulty justifying the decision of implementing consumption tax increase plan from October along with few other security issues related to the region, failure of the opposition to take the opportunity for convincing the electorates of a viable option capable of replacing the current administration paved the way for an easy victory of the governing coalition. This was also reflected in opinion polls conducted by the Japanese media. As a result, the outcome was not something unexpected or surprising.

Officially known as the House of Councilors, the upper chamber of Japanese parliament has 245 seats, of which half go for voting once in three years. Unlike that of the lower chamber, Upper House members serve their full term of six years and dissolution of the House of representatives, as the lower house is officially known, does not have any direct impact on its composition. Moreover, the house serves more as a safeguard mechanism for the legislative body and do not have any direct decisive role in the formation of the government as that of the Lower House. Though there is no legal barrier for an Upper House member to be the prime minister, this has never happened in post World War II Japan.

124 seats were up for grab in Sunday's election and the ruling block was hoping for a victory that would allow the alliance to start the official procedure for constitutional amendment, a long desired target of Prime Minister Abe and his followers. However, despite the sweeping victory, the target of securing the much needed two-third remained elusive and hence political observers in Japan are now cautiously assessing the prime minister's next possible move.

Of 124 seats that had been contested, Abe's LDP secured 57. With the junior coalition partner Komei party gaining 14 seats, the total strength of the alliance stands at 71 of contested 124 seats. In addition the coalition already had 73 seats that had not been contested this time. As a result, the Upper House strength of the coalition is now 144 seats out of a total 245, a number that falls short of two third majorities of 164 seats. However, a third political force that had earlier expressed its support for constitutional revision bolstered further Abe's position, though not to the extent of reaching the desired goal. The Kansai based Japan Innovation Party could secure 10 seats and as the party already had 6 uncontested seats in the Upper House, its total strength of 16 seats narrowly failed to ensure the desired two-third for Abe. All together the pro constitutional amendment parties still lack 4 seats to reach the goal and hence there are wide speculations of what Abe and his ruling block are to do now to win over support of smaller parties with few seats. Particularly vulnerable are two smaller groups with 6 and 2 seats respectively. However, many believe the task will not be an easy one as election pledges of those smaller groups had been against the constitutional reform.

Constitutional amendment in Japan is an extremely difficult task as initiating the move requires the support of two-third majority in both houses of the Diet. The opposition, on the other hand, is mostly united over opposing any move by the ruling coalition to that end. The contentious issue is article 9 of the Japanese constitution that not only denounces war, but also prohibits the country from having its own military forces. Japan in recent days is being increasingly criticized by US President Donald Trump for not fulfilling the task of a trusted partner on security related issues. Despite article 9 of the constitution standing as a barrier for Japan to become a military power, the country had long signed a security treaty with the United States allowing American forces defend it against any outside aggression. The immediate result is the presence of roughly 37 thousand US troops in Japanese territories. Trump is not happy with that and he wants more from Japan, particularly troops that would join US military forces in its numerous operations around the world. For Abe, fulfilling the desire of his friend is not an easy task. In addition to constitutional arrangements, he also would need the backing of his people for undertaking any such endeavor. The Upper House election had been a taste case and Abe might have realized where public opinion stands.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the massive support the ruling block could ensure is a clear barometer of what majority of the Japanese population are thinking. Voter turnout in Sunday's election was 48.8 percent, the second lowest rate for an Upper House election. The fact that more than 50 percent of eligible voters did not feel the need to vote for any candidate or party suggests that the apathy of electorates with the existing political system runs very high. This is definitely a collective failure of both ruling and opposition camps, as neither could convince a large segment of Japanese voters of what they really stand for. And this voter apathy was also a crucial factor behind the coalition's success, since both the parties have solid support bases that they mobilize during election time.

For Shinzo Abe the outcome has probably served as a stark realization that for moving ahead with the constitutional amendment would need some readjustment in policy position. Speaking a day after full results were announced, Abe said without going through details that he would seek "flexible" discussions on revising the Japanese constitution. Hence, coming days would probably give more clear hints of what his flexibility in reality might stand for.

(Tokyo, July 23, 2019)

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