Japan premier boosts power base as ruling coalition claims victory

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito achieved a decisive victory in upper house elections Sunday, early returns and media projections showed.

The ruling coalition retained a majority in the House of Councillors, preliminary results showed, despite Abe's government's failure to achieve long-term economic growth.

"I'm relieved as we cleared our target" of 61 of the 121 seats in the chamber up for grabs in the race, Abe told NHK. The premier believed the result reflected "people's opinions urging us to move the economy forward strongly."

"We'd like to carry out bold and comprehensive economic measures," the premier said.

The LDP, however, fell short of winning a single-party majority in the upper chamber of parliament, NHK reported.

However the ruling coalition and like-minded parties will be able to build a two-thirds majority in the upper chamber of parliament, Kyodo News agency reported.

The premier needs the support of two-thirds of both chambers of parliament in order to call a national referendum on changing the constitution. The coalition already holds a majority in the House of Representatives, the more powerful lower house.

The LDP has pushed for reform of the constitution since it was created in 1955, and drafted proposed amendments in 2005 and 2012. Abe has said that the constitution limits Japan's ability to offer military support to its allies.

However, such reforms are not popular among Komeito supporters.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi told NHK Sunday, "We don't need to revise Article 9 in the immediate future."

Article 9 of the charter prohibits the use of force to settle international disputes.

Despite the party's clear victory, Abe's two cabinet ministers lost in the prefectures of Fukushima and Okinawa.

In Fukushima, Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki was defeated by the Democratic Party's Teruhiko Mashiko, while Aiko Shimajiri, state minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, suffered a crushing defeat in Okinawa.

Shimajiri's defeat dealt a severe blow to Abe as his government is pushing construction of a new US military base in a sparsely populated area of Okinawa, which could take over US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, surrounded by residential areas on the island.

The main opposition Democratic Party was set to win around 30 seats, far below its 43 contested seats.

The party was formed in March through the merger of the Democratic Party of Japan and Japan Innovation Party.

"The Democratic Party has been further fragmented since the party leader [Katsuya] Okada decided to forge an electoral alliance with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP)," said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst.

The Communist Party, which has been drawing voters frustrated with Abe's government, has so far won six seats, up from three.

Every three years Japan's upper house holds elections for half of its 242 seats. This year a total of 389 candidates were running for the 121 seats.

Of the 106.6 million registered voters in Japan, about 16 million people cast their ballot in early polls before Sunday, up 23.5 per cent from the 2013 upper house elections, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Voter turnout was estimated at 53.66 per cent, almost unchanged from the 2013 race that marked the third lowest voting rate, Kyodo reported.

The elections were the first in Japan to be open to 2.4 million people aged 18 and 19, after an electoral law amendment recently reduced the minimum voting age from 20.

Analysts said, however, young people seldom discuss politics and social issues due to the education system, which emphasizes rote memorization for exams instead of encouraging students to express themselves.

Also on Sunday, in the gubernatorial race in Kagoshima prefecture, former TV reporter Satoshi Mitazono, backed by an anti-nuclear camp, defeated incumbent governor Yuichiro Ito, who allowed two nuclear reactors to be brought back online last year.

Mitazono has pledged to suspend the two reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Station amid growing concerns of their safety following the two major earthquakes hit the region in April.

The two units at Sendai are the only ones currently in operation among Japan's 43 workable reactors amid lingering public fears over atomic power.

"It's the top leadership's role to create momentum toward a nuclear power-free society," Mitazono told reporters.

Last update: Sun, 10/07/2016 - 22:21

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