Prime Minister Fumi Kishida’s ruling coalition is heading for a clear victory in Japan’s upper house elections, representing historical occasion a revision of the country’s pacifist constitution following the assassination of Shinzo Abe boosted voter turnout.
The vote came two days after he was the country’s longest-serving prime minister killed by a lone gunman while giving a campaign speech in the western city of Nara.
Analysts initially expected voter turnout to be at a historically low level. But projections by state broadcaster NHK suggested more people voted than in the 2019 election after political parties united in condemning Abe’s assassination as a “challenge to democracy”.
The campaign was driven by the cost of living crisis and security issues related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not constitutional reform. But a strong outcome gives Kishida, known for his moderate views, an opportunity to revise Article 9, which stipulates that land, naval and air forces “shall never be maintained”. This was a life’s ambition for the hawkish Abe.
“In order to gain public understanding, we would like to focus on deepening the constitutional debate in Parliament so that we can submit concrete proposals [for revision]”, Kishida said when the results of the exit polls came in.
Half of the seats in Japan’s less powerful upper house are elected every three years through a mix of constituency votes and proportional representation.
As of midnight local time, NHK exit polls showed the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, winning 73 of the 125 seats up for grabs. Adding to the seats won by two other parties that support constitutional reform, the ruling coalition gained the two-thirds majority needed to revise the constitution, which was written by American occupation forces after World War II.
The LDP, Komeito, Nippon Ishin, a right-wing populist party, and the People’s Democratic Party already have a two-thirds majority in Japan’s lower house. In addition to that threshold in both houses of parliament, the revision of the constitution requires the majority support of the public in a national referendum.
The hurdles to audit remain high. In a poll conducted by NHK before the election, 37 percent of respondents said that the constitution should be revised, while 23 percent were against the revision. Pro-reform parties are also divided on which part of the constitution should be changed.
The victory also gives Kishida a freer hand to shape his policies and appoint people close to him to powerful positions. Analysts, however, said the loss of Abe, the nation’s most powerful and influential leader in decades, could shake the balance of power within the LDP.
“The impact of Abe’s death on Japanese politics will be enormous,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University. “The party could fall apart without the person [like Abe] to hold it together.”
Katsuyuki Isobe, a 50-year-old LDP supporter in the northern Tokyo neighborhood of Hashiba, said he felt an even stronger “sense of conviction” to vote for the party after Abedeath.
“Abe was an exceptional, charismatic leader with a great ability to bring people together,” Isobe said. “It is a huge loss for Japan and the LDP that he is no longer with us. I worry if the LDP can manage without such a strong personality.”
Crowds gathered over the weekend to lay flowers and pray at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the shooting. A family funeral is expected to be held on Tuesday with a joint LDP-government memorial service later, an official in Abe’s office said.
Investigators are focusing on the motive of Abe’s suspected attacker — 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami — who told police he was angry against a “special group” with whom he believed Abe had close relations.
Yamagami, former member Japanof the Maritime Self-Defense Force, reportedly said his mother had made large financial donations to the group, spoiling their household.
The statements suggested that the assassination was the act of a lone gunman and not ideologically or politically motivated.
Police did not name the group in question, but a person familiar with the investigation said the mother was affiliated with a local branch of the Unification Church, often known as the Moonies.
U statement released on Saturday, the Unification Church condemned the shooting. “Weapons have no place in our religious beliefs or customs,” it said. The group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional reports by Nobuko Juji in Chiba and Eri Sugiura in Hokkaido