Japan's ruling bloc set for upper house majority, may get 2/3 - NHK exit poll

Linda Sieg and Chang-Ran Kim, Reuters

Posted at Jul 22 2019 12:02 AM | Updated as of Jul 22 2019 12:26 AM

TOKYO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc won a solid majority in Japan's upper house election on Sunday, but it was uncertain whether the coalition and other allies could seal the two-thirds majority needed to keep alive his dream of revising the pacifist constitution, exit polls and media projections showed.

Abe, who took office in December 2012 pledging to restart the economy and bolster defense, is on track to become Japan's longest-serving premier if he stays on until November, a stunning comeback after he abruptly ended a first, troubled one-year term in 2007.

Turnout, however, looked likely to have fallen below 50% for the first time in an upper house poll since 1995, public broadcaster NHK said, a sign many voters feel they lack an attractive option.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner, the Komeito party, will take 67-77 of the 124 seats being contested in parliament's 245-seat upper house, an NHK exit poll showed. That, together with uncontested seats, assures them a majority.

Still up in the air, however, is whether the ruling bloc and its allies will keep the two-thirds "supermajority" needed to begin revising the constitution's pacifist Article 9 to further legitimize the military, a controversial step.

To maintain that majority, pro-revision forces need to win 85 seats. NHK's exit poll showed they would take 76 to 88 seats.

"Of course, we cannot take the timing as a given, but I would like to achieve it (constitutional reform) somehow during my term," Abe said on TV as the evening wore on. Abe's term as LDP president runs until September 2021.

The charter has not been amended since it was enacted in 1947 and changing it would be hugely symbolic, underscoring a shift away from post-war pacifism already underway.

Article 9, if taken literally, bans maintenance of a military but has been stretched to allow armed forces for self-defense.

VOTERS DIVIDED ON CONSTITUTION CHANGE

Gaining a two-thirds majority, however, would not ensure success for Abe's proposal to enshrine the military in the constitution, given differences among lawmakers on what exactly should be changed, political analysts noted.

Surveys show voters are divided over changing it, with opponents worried doing so would increase the risk of Japan getting entangled in U.S.-led conflicts.

Any change must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of parliament and a majority in a public referendum. The LDP-led bloc has a two-thirds majority in the lower house.

Abe pushed his LDP-led coalition as the best bet for political stability during his campaign.

Opposition parties focused on voters' finances, including a potential hit on spending from an October rise in the sales tax to 10% and strains in the public pension system due to Japan's quickly aging population.

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai told a TV broadcaster that he would support Abe if Abe wanted to seek a fourth term as ruling party president. That would require a change in party rules. "Of course, I'd support him. Because he has the support of the people," Nikai said.

Abe, however, said later that he was "not thinking at all" about running for a fourth term.

Abe had already led his party to victory in five national elections since 2012, helped in part by a fragmented opposition and low turnout by voters.

The main opposition Constitution Democratic Party of Japan was set to increase its seats but remain dwarfed by the LDP, exit polls showed.

(Reporting by Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Additional reporting by Kwiyeon Ha and Elaine Lies; Editing by Michael Perry, Christopher Cushing and Dale Hudson)