TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe`s ruling bloc was forecast to win a solid majority in an upper house election on Sunday that could determine whether his dream of revising the post-war, U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution can be kept alive.
Media surveys show Abe`s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner on track to win more than half the 124 seats up for grabs in the election, possibly strengthening their majority in the chamber.
Up in the air, however, is whether the ruling bloc and its allies will keep the two-thirds "super majority" needed to begin the process of revising the constitution`s pacifist Article 9 to further legitimise the military, a controversial step.
"If they lost it (the two-thirds majority), constitutional revision would be impossible," said Steven Reed, an emeritus professor at Chuo University.
The charter 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.
Article 9, if taken literally, bans maintenance of a military but has been stretched to allow armed forces for self-defence. Surveys show voters are divided over changing it, with opponents worried doing so would increase the risk of Japan getting entangled in U.S.-led conflicts.
Abe, who took office in December 2012 pledging to restart the economy and bolster defence, is pushing his LDP-led coalition as the best bet for political stability.
Opposition parties have focused 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% and strains in the public pension system in the shrinking, fast-ageing population.
"It (the LDP) is the most stable of all. I`m not sure if a drastic change would do us any good," said Misako Tachi, a 52-year-old part-time office worker who said she was most worried about her pension and life after retirement.
"Various parties are saying various things (on pensions), but the lack of concrete plans worries me. Looking at what they have achieved so far, I thought it best that the LDP stays in power."
The ruling bloc along with the Japan Innovation Party and independents open to constitutional revision need to win 85 seats to keep a two-thirds majority, media calculations show.
Keisuke Maeda, 62, who runs a leasing firm, said he`d voted for the LDP`s coalition partner, the Komeito.
"The LDP, being such a strong party, is a bit full of itself, and the opposition is not reliable. It would be risky if the Komeito did not act as a brake within the ruling coalition."
Voter interest in the poll has been tepid and turnout could fall below the 54.7% in the last upper house poll in 2016. "We cannot change our society just by complaining, and I believe young people who have complaints should raise their voices," said 37-year-old Tokyo voter Junichi Nakada.
"Although I`m not young any more, I came to vote today to raise voter turnout."
Voting ends at 8 pm (1100 GMT) with media likely to call the outcome late at night or early on Monday morning. Official results are not expected until Monday.
Abe has led his party to victory in five national elections since returning as LDP leader in 2012, and is on track to become Japan`s longest-serving premier if he stays in office until November. But the victories have been aided by a fragmented opposition and low turnout.
The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan was expected to increase its seats but remain dwarfed by the LDP. Some voters said domestic issues were only one part of the picture, with Japan and its neighbour South Korea embroiled in a feud over the legacy of the wartime past.
"I hope that the next ruling party and leaders will be able to take a solid look not only at Japan`s domestic issues but also how Japan works with neighbouring countries," said Noriko Yasuhara, 63. "Or with regards to relations with the United States, what Japan`s role will be."