Monday 23 September 2019

Japan voters brave typhoon to re-elect prime minister

A girl casts her father’s ballot at a polling station in Tokyo. Photo: REUTERS
A girl casts her father’s ballot at a polling station in Tokyo. Photo: REUTERS

Danielle Demetriou

Japan's ruling conservative party was last night on track to win a sweeping election victory, paving the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to pursue his goal of revising the post-war constitution.

Millions of Japanese braved strong winds and heavy rain from an approaching typhoon as well as widespread travel chaos to vote, as 1,200 candidates vied for 465 seats in the lower house of parliament.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was projected to achieve a comfortable majority, according to exit polls, prompting expectations it would retain its two-thirds "super majority" with its coalition partner.

Such a victory would be a major boost for Mr Abe, who came to office in 2012 with promises of bolstering Japan's defence and rebooting the world's third-largest economy through his "Abenomics" growth strategy.

It also shows Mr Abe's high-stakes gamble of calling a snap election a year earlier than scheduled - and his promise to resign if his party failed to achieve a majority - appears to have paid off.

The election unfolded against a backdrop of chaotic scenes among the opposition.

Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, admitted results for her recently formed Party of Hope (Kibo no To) were "severe".

The populist party's pledges included a goal of eliminating nuclear power in Japan by 2030 and a delay to an unpopular consumer tax rise due to take effect in 2019. However, its campaign quickly lost momentum after Ms Koike, long touted as a possible first female prime minister, announced she would not be standing as a candidate.

Meanwhile, Mr Abe's projected win, which paves the way for him to become Japan's longest-serving post-war prime minister, will give him a fresh mandate to pursue his strong stance against North Korea and continue with his efforts to revitalise a stagnant economy.

His victory will also add momentum to his controversial goal of amending Japan's pacifist constitution and, in particular, redefining the role of the self-defence forces in Article 9, which he aims to implement by 2020.

While Mr Abe is widely viewed as a divisive leader, the current insecurity surrounding North Korea's nuclear and missile programme appears to have fuelled an underlying conservatism among many voters, pushing them to hedge their bets with the LDP.

"The situation in the world is not stable in many aspects and I believe the LDP is the only party to rely on," said Kyoko Ichida (78) after voting in Tokyo.

Yoshihisa Iemori (50), a construction company owner, added: "I support Abe's stance not to give in to North Korea's pressure. I'm focusing on this point for the election."

Final official results from the election, which coincided with an approaching typhoon, are expected early today.

The US-drafted constitution's Article 9, if taken literally, bans the maintenance of armed forces. But Japanese governments have interpreted it to allow a military exclusively for self-defence.

Backers of Mr Abe's proposal to clarify the military's ambiguous status say it would codify the status quo. Critics fear it would allow an expanded role overseas for the military.

Mr Abe said he would not stick to a target he had floated of making the changes by 2020. "First, I want to deepen debate and have as many people as possible agree," he said. "We should put priority on that."

The LDP's junior partner, the Komeito, is cautious about changing the constitution, drawn up after Japan's defeat in World War II. Several opposition parties favour changes, but don't agree on details.

Amendments must be approved by two-thirds of each chamber of parliament and then by a majority in a public referendum.

"Now that pro-constitutional change parties occupy more than two-thirds of the parliament, the constitution will be the most important political issue next year," said Hidenori Suezawa, a financial market analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities.

"And as we saw in the UK... a referendum could be tricky. So while Abe is likely to be prime minister for the time being, it is too early to say whether he can stay in power until 2021."

Mr Abe had said he needed a new mandate to tackle a "national crisis" from North Korea's nuclear threats and a fast-ageing population, and to approve his idea of diverting revenue from a planned sales tax hike to education and childcare from public debt repayment.

He called the poll amid confusion in the opposition camp and an uptick in his ratings, dented earlier in the year by scandals over suspected cronyism and a perception he had grown arrogant after nearly five years in office. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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