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Japan votes in upper house election, US-imposed constitution at stake

Japanese voters have taken to the polls to cast their ballots in an upper house election that could determine whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party would be allowed to realize a long-held ambition of revising the country’s US-drafted pacifist constitution.

Polling stations opened across most of the Japanese archipelago at 7:00 a.m. (2200 GMT) on Sunday and will close at 8 in the evening, with a total of 370 candidates vying for 124 seats out of the 245 that make up the parliament’s Upper House, known as the House of Councilors.

Opinion polls suggest Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, the Buddhist Komeito, are likely to grab a two-thirds majority in the chamber.

A person walks in front of a board with posters of the upper house election candidates in Tokyo on July 21, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

The majority vote could give the 64-year-old Abe, who is on course to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, the support to move ahead with his plans to amend provisions stipulated in the country’s constitution concerning the Japanese military and the sustainability of the national pension system.

Abe vowed earlier this month to “clearly stipulate the role of the Self-Defense Forces in the constitution,” which prohibits Japan from waging war and maintaining a military.

The provisions, imposed by the US after World War II, are popular with the public at large but frowned upon by nationalists like Abe, who see them as outdated and punitive.

Abe has announced plans to increase Japan’s consumption tax to 10 percent later this year as part of efforts to ease swelling social security costs in the aging country.

Preliminary results of the Sunday vote will be released later in the day but the final results are not expected until Monday.

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The crucial vote comes at a time when Abe has been struggling to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia and establish a foothold in the South China Sea in the face of an assertive Beijing.

Abe has been trying to establish himself as a leader in the international arena, persistently leaning towards the administration in Washington.

US President Donald Trump announced after a visit to Japan in May that he would hold off on thorny trade negotiations with the country until after the Japanese upper house election.

The US supports Abe’s push to renounce the pacifist constitution because it paves the way for the sale of American weapons to Japan. 

Under Abe, Japan has already announced that it will spend a record 242 billion dollars on military equipment over the next five years, 6.4 percent higher than the previous five-year plan.

Last December, Japan approved military plans to buy more American stealth fighters and other equipment in order to boost its capabilities against regional powers Russia and China.

Japan’s decision to buy 105 more US-made F-35 stealth fighters will allegedly expand its capabilities in the South China Sea, posing a threat to Beijing. 

Tokyo also plans to convert two large ships, the Izumo and Kaga, into aircraft carriers for the first time since World War II.

It will also buy other US-made equipment, including two land-based Aegis Ashore air defense radars, four Boeing Co KC-46 Pegasus refueling planes, and nine Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye early-warning planes.

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