Abe's ruling coalition to maintain upper house majority: exit polls

Pacifist constitution reform at stake as Japan goes to polls

Pacifist constitution reform at stake as Japan goes to polls

Abe hopes to gain enough seats to boost his chances to revise Japan's pacifist constitution - his long-cherished goal before his term ends in 2021.

As of 6 p.m. local time, two hours ahead of polls closing, turnout was 27.3 percent, 5.19 percentage points lower than elections three years ago, according to Japan's Ministry of Information and Communications.

NHK public television said Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komeito had won 64 seats in the upper house after two hours of vote counting. Some LDP members were concerned that the Abe administration would become a lame duck had they lost the majority, as there are not many opportunities left after Sunday's election for Abe to dissolve the House of Representatives and call for a general election.

To maintain the two-thirds majority needed to revise the constitution, the coalition and like-minded allies need to win 85 seats in Sunday's poll. NHK's exit poll said they would take 76 to 88 seats.

"Of course, we can not take the timing as a given, but I would like to achieve it (constitutional reform) somehow during my term", Abe said on TV as the evening wore on.

The charter has not 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 Nine of the constitution renounced Japan's right to wage war, which effectively banned the country's possession of armed forces.

"The ruling parties were given a majority.as people made a decision to urge us to firmly push for policies under the stable political base", Abe told public broadcaster NHK.

Surveys show voters are divided over changing the ban, with opponents anxious doing so would increase the risk of Japan getting entangled in US-led conflicts.

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His ruling bloc has a two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house.

He said Japan would continue to make diplomatic efforts to help stabilise the region, and that he wanted to speak with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Opposition parties have focused on concerns over household finances, such as the impact from an upcoming 10% sales tax increase and strains on the public pension system amid an aging population.

The opposition parties, for their part, appealed in their campaigns to increase more pension benefits to low-pension recipients than the amount that the ruling bloc has proposed, and called for a review of the government's macroeconomic slide mechanism that is meant to curb rising pension payouts. That would require a change in party rules.

"Of course, we can not take the timing as a given, but I would like to achieve it [constitutional reform] somehow during my term", Mr Abe said on TV.

Following the vote, however, Abe said he would continue trying to expand support for the revision even if the pro-revision group eventually misses the target, necessary for proposing a constitutional amendment.

Shinzo Abe has led his ruling Liberal Democratic Party to five consecutive parliamentary election victories since 2012.

The biggest opposition force, Constitution Democratic Party of Japan, was set to increase its seats but remain dwarfed by the LDP, projections showed.

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