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Pacifist constitution reform at stake as Japan goes to polls

Al Jazeera logo Al Jazeera 7/21/2019 Al Jazeera English
Shinzo Abe, Shinzo Abe holding a sign: Media surveys show Abe's ruling bloc on track to win more than half the 124 seats up for grabs in the election [Issei Kato/Reuters] © [Issei Kato/Reuters] Media surveys show Abe's ruling bloc on track to win more than half the 124 seats up for grabs in the election [Issei Kato/Reuters]

Voters in Japan are casting ballots in an election for the upper house of parliament, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc is looking to protect its majority and keep on track plans to amend the country's pacifist constitution.

Media surveys show Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito on track to win more than half the 124 seats up for grabs in Sunday's vote, mostly due to a lacklustre opposition.

Abe is pushing his LDP-led coalition as the best bet for political stability, while opposition parties campaigned on what they call a threat to voter finances, including a potential hit on spending from an October rise in the sales tax to 10 percent and strains in the public pension system in the shrinking with a fast-ageing population.

Voting began across the country at 7am (22:00 GMT Saturday) with the outcome expected to become clear shortly after the polls close at 8pm. 

Pollsters suggested turnout could be lower than 50 percent, significantly less than usual.

"I support the current government because I see no alternative," said Yoshiko Iida, a 45-year-old beauty therapist.

"Opposition parties are woeful," she told AFP news agency. "I don't want to leave power to them."

Susumu Rokkaku, an 85-year-old male pensioner, said: "I voted for an opposition candidate but whoever is elected, nothing will change. I have no expectations."

A voter casts a ballot at a voting station during Japan's upper house election in Tokyo, Japan [Issei Kato/ Reuters]

There are 245 seats in the upper house, about half of which are elected every three years. The ruling bloc controls 70 seats in the half of the chamber that is not being contested.

In order to secure the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional revision, Abe's bloc and supporters would need to win 85 seats, media calculations show.

The 64-year-old leader vowed earlier this month to "clearly stipulate the role of the Self-Defence Forces in the constitution" which prohibits Japan from waging war and maintaining a military.

The provisions, imposed by the United States after World War II, are popular with the public at large, but reviled by nationalists who see them as outdated and punitive.

Surveys show voters are divided over changing it, with opponents worried doing so would increase the risk of Japan getting entangled in US-led conflicts. 

Any constitutional revision requires approval in a national referendum. 

Al Jazeera's Fadi Salameh, reporting from Tokyo, said some of Japan's neighbours opposed Abe's plan. 

"They are afraid that it could mean Japan is heading towards remilitarisation. Abe is known to be a close friend to US President Donald Trump who has asked Japan many times to participate more in guaranteeing the security and stability of the region through military cooperation."

Japan's constitution has never been amended since it was enacted in 1947 and changing it would be hugely symbolic, underscoring a shift away from post-war pacifism already under way.

A win for the ruling bloc means Abe should be able to stay in power until November when he will break the record of the nation's longest-serving premiership held by Taro Katsura, a revered politician who served three times between 1901 and 1913.


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