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Asia

Abe set to consolidate power in upper house

Just days ahead of the election for Japan's Upper House, the ruling party has a solid lead over the fragmented opposition. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks set to break six years of deadlock in the chamber.

Public opinion polls in the run up to election for the House of Councilors on Sunday, July 21st, suggest that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito, its ally in the ruling coalition, will secure a large majority and enable Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (title picture, center) to push forward some of the issues he has been itching to implement since his first brief stint as leader of Japan, back in 2006.

Abe will be mindful, however, of not making the same mistakes he made then and which brought his time in office to an end after just one year.

Japan's parliament building is seen through a steel chain in Tokyo July 4, 2013, the start day of campaigning for the July 21 upper house election. (Photo: Reuters)

Polls suggest that Japan's ruling coalition will win the upper house election and end a six-year policy deadlock

According to the latest polls, as much as 43 percent of the electorate will vote for the LDP with a further 8 percent backing New Komeito. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) - which ruled Japan until elections for the Lower House of the Diet in December - has the support of just 7 percent of the electorate.

That dramatic collapse in support for the left-of-center party - which swept to power in September 2009 but lasted a mere three years and three months - means that another poor result could effectively mean the end of its political effectiveness and make its dissolution inevitable. Analysts believe that the feeble opposition has made Abe's task in the election far more straightforward than it should have been.

Fractured opposition

"It's almost difficult to say what the issues have been for the electorate because the opposition parties have been so fractured and unable to identify any significant highlights of their own campaign issues," Jun Okumura, an international relations analyst with the Eurasia Group, told DW. The DPJ, for instance, has failed to address the subject of the future of nuclear power, despite the issue's resonance with the electorate 28 months after disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.

Similarly, there has been little discussion of Japan's participation in discussions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which some fear will devastate Japan's agricultural sector. The same is true for the lack of debate on Japan's foreign policy and national security issues at a time when Tokyo's diplomatic ties with its immediate neighbors are at all-time lows.

Steven Reed, a professor at Chuo University who specializes in Japanese political parties and elections, agrees that Abe is on course for "a big win". And while he agrees that the weakness of opposition parties has laid the foundations of that victory, he also states that Abe has learned many lessons from the 365 days he spent in office as prime minister from September 2006.

Sold ideas to public

"This time around, he has done a better job of selling his ideas to the public than any other Japanese prime minister in living memory - and I include Junichiro Koizumi in that," he said, citing the hugely popular and charismatic LDP leader who stepped down undefeated in September 2006 after more than five-and-a-half years in office.

Staff members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) post posters of election candidates at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo July 4, 2013, the start day of campaigning for the July 21 upper house election. (Photo: Reuters)

Okumura believes Japanese parties have failed to address significant issues during their election campaigsn

"In the Trans-Pacific Partnership debate, he tells the public why they need it and what it will mean for farmers," he said. "The Bank of Japan and Keidanren [the Federation of Japanese Businesses] were both opposed to his fiscal reforms but are both enthusiastically on board now.

"This really is his second chance and I think he has learned to use the media well, he is out there selling his policies and - importantly - he's not backing down." That translates to a winner in the public's eyes and Abe will reap that reputation in the election, giving the same political party control of both houses of the Japanese Diet for the first time in six years and shattering the impasse that has delayed and blocked long-overdue social and political reforms, the expert says.

With that mandate, Okumura believes Abe will attempt to impose changes in the areas of labor reform, agrarian reform, healthcare and women in the workplace.

Historical figure

"These are things that need to be done and if he is able to achieve half the things that require his attention, then there will be a transformation in Japanese society and Abe will go down as a historical figure, but even with that elusive two-house majority, I think it will be difficult to make such massive changes."

However, Okumura believes that Abe will be frustrated in the issue that is closest to his conservative heart: reform of a constitution that nationalists here believe was imposed on Japan by the victorious Allies in the aftermath of World War II and has not been revised or updated to meet the needs of the modern world since.

Any significant change in the constitution would inevitably involve Article 9, which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes, and Buddhist-backed New Komeito would oppose any such effort.

"I think Abe will try to go forward, but what he can't afford to do is to force New Komeito to part ways with the LDP," Okumura said. "He cannot afford to lose what equates to around 10 percent of the voters in this election and all elections in the future.

"I suspect he will work on New Komeito to try to loosen the ban on collective defense, but through interpretation of the constitution rather than attempting an amendment," he added.

The prime minister may have to bide his time a little longer before he fulfills all his political ambitions, but for now he is in a stronger position than any Japanese leader for decades.