Polls open in Japan’s upper house elections

TOKYO, July 21 (NNN-KYODO) – Voters began casting ballots on Sunday in Japan’s upper house election as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks an endorsement of “political stability” to achieve his policy goals, including long-envisioned constitutional reform.

With a total of 370 candidates vying for 124 seats up for grabs, the focus is on whether the ruling bloc and other pro-amendment forces can maintain a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors, a prerequisite to revising the Constitution for the first time.

Board for displaying candidates’ posters. Photo courtesy of Kyodo

Of the 124 contested seats, 74 will be chosen in electoral districts and 50 through proportional representation. The election comes as the six-year term for half of the upper house members will expire July 28.

Due to electoral reform, the number of seats in the upper house will increase by six to 248 in 2022. Of the six, three will be added this time to bring the total seats to 245. The results will likely become clear by early Monday, with voter turnout closely watched as a barometer of public interest, particularly among young people.

Opposition parties joined forces to boost their chances of winning in the country’s 32 single-seat constituencies by fielding a unified candidate to avoid splitting the anti-LDP vote among them.

As his self-imposed deadline for having a revised Constitution in 2020 draws closer, Abe — leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — gave the issue priority in the nationwide election to build momentum.

While he lashed out at opposition parties that have resisted parliamentary debate over the revision, media surveys showed many voters did not take it as a top priority issue during the election campaign, as they focused more on pension and tax issues as well as economic measures.

The ruling and opposition parties remain divided over revising the war-renouncing Article 9, a symbol of Japan’s postwar pacifism, as has been the case for the public in media polls.

With 79 uncontested seats, the pro-amendment camp needs to win at least 85 seats in Sunday’s election to maintain a two-thirds majority in the upper house, necessary for proposing a constitutional amendment and calling a national referendum. The ruling bloc has a super majority in the powerful lower house.

After postponing a plan to lift the consumption tax from 8 percent to 10 percent twice, Abe now plans to go ahead with the tax hike in October, even as a U.S.-China trade war casts a shadow on the economic outlook. More than six and a half years of his “Abenomics” policy mix has brought the economy back on a recovery path but growth remains slow with tepid consumer spending.

During a 17-day campaign period, the LDP and its ruling coalition partner Komeito said the tax hike is necessary to use part of the revenue to expand child-care support as promised. Opposition parties are against the tax hike, saying their focus is on protecting households.

Amid the rapid graying of the population, Japan’s public pension system also emerged as a major issue since the government’s refusal to accept a report by a Financial Services Agency panel, providing the opposition with ammunition to criticize the Abe government for trying to hide an inconvenient truth.

The panel estimated that an average retired couple would face a shortfall of 20 million yen ($185,000) under the current pension system, if they live to be 95 years old, even though the government aims to create a society in which people can live to 100 years old without financial worries.

The following is an explanation of how members of the Diet’s House of Councillors are elected.

Lawmakers in the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of Japan’s bicameral legislature, serve six-year terms. An election, in which half of the chamber’s seats are contested, takes place every three years.

Due to electoral system reform in July 2018, the number of seats will rise by six from 242 to 248, in two stages. Three of the six will be added this time, meaning 124 of 245 seats are contested. At the next election in 2022, 124 of 248 seats will be up for grabs.

Members of the upper house serve a full term, unlike lawmakers in the House of Representatives, or lower house, which a prime minister can dissolve for an election at their discretion.

Its shorter, four-year term means the lower house is thought to more directly reflect the will of the people than the upper house. Japan’s Constitution thereby grants more power to the lower house by giving its decisions precedence over those of the upper house.

Voters cast two ballots in the election — one to choose electoral district representatives for 74 of the upper house’s 124 contested seats, and one under a proportional representation system to fill the remaining 50 seats with parties’ list candidates.

Under the proportional representation system, voters write in either the name of a political party or a specific candidate from contenders registered by parties in an open-list system.

List seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the number of ballots they receive, either in the name of the party or candidates on their list.

Once the number of seats to be allocated to each party is clear, candidates are ranked within each party according to the number of ballots they received by name. Those with the most votes will be given top priority in filling the list seats allocated to the party.

Under the revised election law, a “special quota” is being introduced for the proportional representation system for the first time, through which candidates can also be elected according to their place on a list submitted by each party, regardless of the number of votes they get.

Parties often field list candidates with a degree of public fame, such as celebrities, scholars or athletes, to draw a large number of votes.

Candidates cannot run in an electoral district and under the proportional representation system at the same time, unlike those running in lower house elections.

The minimum voting age was lowered to 18 from 20 in an amendment effective since 2016.