Abe's 2019 constitutional push may hinge on talks with Russia

For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a comfortable victory in the upper house election in the summer of 2019 is a must if he is to take a step toward achieving his long-cherished political goal of revising Japan's pacifist Constitution.
But it remains unclear if his Liberal Democratic Party and other parties in favor of amending the supreme law can maintain a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors, a critical condition Abe needs to fulfill before initiating the process for his dream to come true.
One of the major risks would be that Abe may not be able to win the hearts and minds of voters on the diplomatic front, as securing progress on territorial negotiations with Russia appears to be harder than he had initially envisaged.
Abe, who once resigned for health reasons after a one-year tenure from 2006 but returned to office in late 2012, is in a position to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister in November 2019.
He is desperate to accomplish something that will leave his mark on history during his last three-year term as LDP president through 2021, political experts say.
The 64-year-old conservative leader, who has gained core supporters for the hard line he has taken on North Korea, hopes to bring back Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s.
But this diplomatic agenda is unlikely to move forward anytime soon partly because of stalled nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
In May 2017, Abe caused a political stir by proposing to change the war-renouncing Article 9 of the supreme law to put an end to the debate over the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces.
Still, the LDP failed to present its amendment plans, including Abe's proposal, to the Diet during its extraordinary session through Dec. 10, despite the prime minister's wish to do so.
The Constitution, which was written during the U.S.-led post-World War II occupation, has never been amended since entering into force in 1947.
Pro-constitutional reform forces currently control two-thirds majorities in both Diet houses, satisfying the requirement to initiate the process needed for its amendment. However, the proposal must eventually be approved by a majority in a national referendum.
As the number of the pro-constitutional revision lawmakers remains slightly above the threshold in the 242-seat upper chamber, the LDP needs to maintain as many seats as possible.
An upper house election takes place every three years, in which half of the chamber's seats are contested. Three more seats will be contested in 2019 as a result of electoral system reform, meaning a total of 124 will be up for grabs.
The LDP is predicted to lose some of the seats it has now, given that it managed to increase the number by 65 in its landslide victory six years ago.
In a high-stakes gambit, Abe could dissolve the House of Representatives for a simultaneous double election at the time of the upper house poll, although the four-year tenure of the more powerful lower house will expire in October 2021.
Masahiro Iwasaki, a political science professor at Nihon University, said the double election is probable as the ruling bloc could benefit from a possible upbeat mood in the country after Emperor Akihito steps down on April 30 in the first abdication in around 200 years, followed by Crown Prince Naruhito's ascension to the throne the following day.
"Japanese people tend to take imperial family events positively. In a celebratory atmosphere, people will not likely opt for a change and voters are unlikely to cast ballots against the present government," Iwasaki said, adding the ambience "would serve as a tailwind for the ruling parties."
But Abe could fail in his ongoing endeavor to leave another political legacy -- concluding a postwar peace treaty with Russia.
In November, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to accelerate talks toward the conclusion of a peace treaty based on a 1956 joint declaration in which Moscow promised to hand over two of the disputed islands to Tokyo once it was signed.
The dispute over the islets off Japan's Hokkaido occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty.
Abe is planning to visit Russia in January for peace treaty negotiations and reach a broad agreement in June, when Putin will visit Japan for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, according to government sources.
Abe's focus on the 1956 document has prompted the view that he will first prioritize the handover of the two islands -- Shikotan and the Habomai islet group. The disputed islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, also involve Etorofu and Kunashiri.
The latest survey by Kyodo News conducted in mid-December showed that 53.2 percent of respondents supported the government's recent approach in dealing with the return of the four islands.
However, it is uncertain whether Putin would make a concession to Abe over the decades-long territorial issue.
Even if Abe succeeds in advancing the talks with Russia or reaching a deal by June on the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, Japanese voters may respond negatively as it could be taken as running counter to Tokyo's longtime stance of settling the status of the four islands, Nihon University's Iwasaki said.
Political commentator Norio Toyoshima said an unfavorable outcome in the upper house election, or the double election, would deal a critical blow to Abe's government and his bid to rewrite the Constitution.
"If he loses the election, Mr Abe will have leave office, rather than becoming a lame duck," Toyoshima said.

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