Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-life obsession to revise the country’s pacifist constitution suffered a blow in Japan’s Upper House elections last Sunday. The pro-revision political parties and groups – Abe’s Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP), its junior coalition partner Komeito, the revisionist and nationalist Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) and a few independent lawmakers – did not win enough seats to hold on to the two-third majority in the 245-seat Upper House they obtained in 2016. A two-third majority in both chambers of the parliament – the Lower and the Upper Houses – had until Sunday de facto enabled the LDP-led coalition to govern without the opposition’s ability to block any of what the LDP and its allies submitted to the parliament. This included Abe’s plan to set in motion a national referendum on revising the country’s war-renouncing Article 9. The war-renouncing clause, Abe and his fellow revisionists have complained over years and indeed decades, has ‘emasculated’ the country ever since the occupying United States imposed a pacifist constitution in 1947. In 1947, US General Douglas MacArthur de facto ordered Japan to adopt a constitution with the war-renouncing Article 9, which turned the formerly militarist and imperialist into a democratic country and the world’s second largest economy until 2009. Abe and like-minded Japanese nationalists and revisionists, however, lament that Japan has lost its independence and indeed ‘dignity’ in 1947 and only constitutional revision would give back both to country.
That, however, is not going to happen after Sunday. Abe’s LDP won 57 of the 124 seats up for election last Sunday, down from the 66 it won in 2013 when the same Upper House seats were last contested in 2016 (half of the Upper House seats are elected every three years). The Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, won 14 seats, which together with the seats that were not up for election gives the Abe-led government a strong majority of 141 out of the 245 seats in the Upper House. However, that is still 23 seats short of the 164 seats needed for a two-third majority (also referred to as ‘super-majority’). Such majority in the Upper House is needed to initiate the procedures for constitutional revision in the chamber. The LDP-led coalition has that ‘super-majority’ in the Lower House of the parliament, but Article 96 of the Japanese constitution stipulates that constitutional revision must be approved by respective two-third majorities in both chambers of the parliament (in order to let the electorate decide on constitutional revision through a referendum).
The political opposition in the meantime holds a total of 81 seats after Sunday’s elections: the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) has 32 seats, the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) 21 seats, the Communist Party 13 seats, the Social-Democratic Party (SDP) 2 seats and independent opposition lawmakers a combined 13 seats. In a sad indication of political apathy, Sunday’s election saw the second-lowest voter turnout since the end of the World War II. Only 48.8 percent of the electorate bothered to vote and the turnout was lower only in the 1995 Upper House elections (44.5 percent).
Abe announced during his election campaign that constitutional revision is the very central issue on his agenda. Against the background of the election outcome this suggests that the majority of the electorate – those who did not vote for the LDP and other pro-revision parties and those who did not show up to vote in the first place – are quite simply not interested in constitutional revision. To be sure, Abe does not face opposition only from outside but also from within his coalition. Parts of the originally pacifist party Komeito are categorically opposed to revising Article 9. The party base of supporters is organized in the Buddhist lay organization Soka Gakkai, for which the revision of war-renouncing Article 9 remains a no go. Indeed, Abe and his fellow nationalists and revisionists had to realize that the public is far less interested in and indeed obsessed with constitutional revision than they are, which in turn resulted in a watered down version of constitutional revision: the kind of Article 9 Abe now has in mind would merely constitutionally legalize Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (JDF), turning them into ‘normal’ armed forces. The constitution’s Article 9 does not allow Japan to maintain armed forces, the reason why Japan’s state-of-the-art military (equipped with an annual $45 billion budget) are called Self-Defence Forces.
Failing to hold on the two-third majority in the Upper House means that Abe is now obliged to obtain cooperation from opposition parties if he wants to continue pursuing constitutional revision. And of course he does, as he didn’t get the electorate’s message and continues to think that he is charged with the ‘near-divine mission’ to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution. “In the end, constitutional revision will be decided by the people in a national referendum. The LDP has put forward proposals for constitutional revision and we want other parties to do the same. The two-thirds barrier needed (for Diet approval) is a very high hurdle, but let’s find a solution to overcome it,” Abe said on Monday. Reality, however, is very different: a national referendum on constitutional revision is as good as off the agenda after Sunday, and opposition parties will neither put forward proposals for constitutional revision nor endorse proposal put forward by Abe’s LDP. And that’s that, most probably.