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Asia

Japan's Abe sets sight on supermajority

Japan's PM Shinzo Abe hints he may call elections for both houses of parliament in an attempt to secure two-thirds majority needed to rewrite the nation's pacifist constitution. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

With the ultimate aim of winning sufficient support from the public to rewrite Japan's postwar constitution, it appears that Prime Minister Abe is planning to call a double general election in July.

Analysts suggest that his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will be able to secure the two-thirds majority in both houses that it requires to rewrite the constitution, a document that many conservatives believe was imposed upon a defeated Japan by the victorious powers in 1945.

Abe has identified Article 9 of the constitution, which forbids Japan from waging war in order to settle international disputes and critics say hobbles the nation's ability to protect its citizens, as a particular target for revision.

And while a good proportion of the Japanese public may be wary of such a dramatic step, Abe has been helped immeasurably by the feebleness of domestic opposition parties and the growing assertiveness of neighbor China.

Feeble opposition

"The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the largest opposition party, is not united and all it can do is paper over its internal differences to appear that it has coherent policies," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Tokyo-based Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told DW.

Japan Tokio Änderung Sicherheitspolitik Shinzo Abe

Abe's LDP party currently controls 291 seats in the parliament's lower house

The DPJ, which is made up of a hodgepodge of political philosophies, is trying to keep both the far-left and the far-right flanks of the party together. And the outcome of this effort is "incoherence," which plays into the LDP's hands, Okumura said.

As well as having little in the way to challenge the Abe government in terms of policies, the DPJ managed to alienate large sections of the popular media during its last stint in power.

"All in all, it adds up to a very negative outlook for the opposition and Abe is simply capitalizing on the situation," Okumura said.

Positive winds

Additional positive factors at home for Abe include an economy that is looking more positive than it has done for some years, even though critics of the prime minister's "Abenomics" policies insist that it lacks substance and is built on flimsy foundations.

Developments in the Asia-Pacific region are also expected to have an impact on how the Japanese public vote on polling day, believes Professor Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

"There is a good argument for Abe sending a crate of champagne to Beijing and another one to Pyongyang," he said, pointing out that North Korea's recent nuclear test and China's seizure and fortification of disputed islands in the South China Sea have raised security concerns among the Japanese people.

"All the saber-rattling has played directly to the LDP's advantage," said Kingston, adding that these sorts of actions give a boost to Abe's revisionist agenda.

"It's not at all clear to me that the Japanese people do favor revising the pacifist constitution, but in a situation in which they feel threatened then it is inevitable they will shift towards a party that promises them safety, as Abe is doing," the expert underlined.

LDP's large majority

Japan went to the polls to elect members for the parliament's lower house as recently as in December 2014, with the LDP increasing its majority by taking 291 of the 475 seats. Its ally in the ruling coalition, the Buddhist-backed Komeito party, won a further 31 seats and in 2015 expressed support for Abe's plan to give Japan's military limited powers to fight in foreign conflicts for the first time since World War II.

Still, Japan expert Okumura believes framing the election as effectively a referendum on revising the constitution would be a mistake on Abe's part. He says a significant proportion of the electorate might agree with many of Abe's policies but could baulk at the idea of Japanese troops being deployed to the Middle East or other flashpoints around the world.

"All things being equal, I actually expect the LDP-Komeito coalition to lose some seats in a double election, but if the opposition is in even worse shape than they appear to be now then the picture becomes less clear," Okumura noted. "It is possible that we will see more independents taking seats, further fragmenting the picture," he said.