By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has avoided lame-duck status after his ruling bloc won a solid victory in Sunday’s upper house election but the poll – with nearly record-low turnout – has dented his hopes of revising the pacifist constitution and left him facing tough diplomatic challenges
Below are five takeaways from the voting for 124 seats in the 245-member chamber, elections for half of which are held every three years.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made clear he’s unhappy over Japan’s $67.6 billion trade surplus with the United States and said he expected an announcement on a deal after the upper house poll. The two sides are working on an agreement involving agriculture and autos that could be clinched in September, but talks are fluid. Any agreement would likely be just part of a broader deal sought by Trump – who has threatened to put 25% tariffs on imported Japanese cars.
Abe also faces U.S. pressure to join a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran and Yemen. Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton was in Tokyo on Monday and was expected to raise the issue, debate over which could inflame a divide in public opinion over sending Japanese troops abroad.
Abe is expected to maintain a tough stance – which many voters support – in a bitter feud with South Korea over compensation for South Koreans forced to work for Japanese occupiers during World War Two. The dispute worsened this month when Japan tightened export controls on high-tech materials to South Korea.
ABE’S FUTURE, VOTERS’ OPTION
The solid showing by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-led bloc means Abe has avoided becoming a lame duck in the final two years of his third three-year term as party leader and is on track to become Japan’s longest-serving premier if he stays in his post until November.
Abe, who made a surprise come-back in 2012 after a troubled 2006-2007 term, has now led the LDP to six national election wins and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has suggested Abe for a fourth term as party chief. That would require a change in LDP rules.
Turnout in the election, however, fell below 50% to the lowest level since 1995, media estimates showed, due to a perceived lack of viable alternatives among a fragmented opposition camp and an absence of heated debate on issues.
Abe’s long-held dream of revising the post-war, pacifist constitution was dented when his coalition and other allies failed to keep the two-thirds “super majority” needed to start the controversial process of revising the charter, never amended since it was enacted after Japan’s defeat in World War Two.
Abe said after the victory that the results meant voters accepted the need for debate on the divisive issue, and is expected to try to persuade some opposition lawmakers to back change. The premier wants to enshrine the nation’s military in the constitution, a change that would be hugely symbolic and underscore a shift away from pacifism already underway.
A record 28% percent of candidates were women in the first national election since Japan enacted a law setting a non-binding target for parties to run an equal number of men and women, and a record-tying 28 women were elected.
LGBT candidate Taiga Ishikawa won a seat with support from the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan – which had made diversity a campaign slogan – to become the country’s only openly gay member of parliament.
And two severely disabled candidates including Yasuhiko Funago, who has the progressive neurological disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), won seats with the backing of a small opposition group.
Abe’s victory assures that a scheduled sales tax rise to 10% from 8% will take place in October and that the government will ramp up fiscal spending if the higher levy, coupled with the pressure on exports from the global economic slowdown, push Japan into recession. The Bank of Japan will remain under pressure to expand monetary stimulus if risks to the economy heighten, though the premier has signalled the central bank has done enough by creating jobs with hits ultra-loose policy.
(Additional reporting by Leika Kihara; Editing by Michael Perry)