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TOKYO – Days after the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his party pledged to use its victory in a general election to achieve its unfinished goals, including strengthening the military and overhauling the country’s pacifist post-war constitution.
While the comfortable majority secured on Sunday by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito could rule Prime Minister Fumio Kishida indefinitely until a scheduled 2025 election, Abe’s loss opened up a period of uncertainty for his party as well . On the one hand, the promised constitutional amendment faced a hard struggle.
In a country where gun crime is vanishingly rare, Abe’s shooting shook the nation, and Japanese flocked to a Buddhist temple on Monday to mourn their former leader while police looked for a possible motive.
Kishida, meanwhile, welcomed his party’s victory but also acknowledged that it is entering a new era without the towering politician, who remained a force in party and national politics even after stepping down as prime minister in 2020.
“Because we lost a great leader, we could undoubtedly be affected in many ways,” said Kishida. “Our party must unite when we face difficult problems.”
Experts said Abe, a kingmaker and leader of the party’s largest wing, has no clear successor and his absence could spark a power struggle among members of that faction.
“Mr. Abe’s absence and his rise to power in the party may give Mr. Kishida more free rein to take his own initiative,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of international politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. Kishida has enjoyed relatively high approval ratings for his perceived effort at listening to people. That indicated that support for his more dovish stance could be rising and falling for Abe’s more conservative approach, Nakano said.
But he added that any significant change in direction for Kishida would be difficult and would take time. Much of Japan’s current diplomatic and security policies, such as strengthening the Japan-US alliance and striving for a free and open Asia-Pacific region as a countermeasure to China’s rise, were set by Abe and have remained unchanged, he said.
Kishida said the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising prices are his priorities. But he also pledged to push for strengthening Japan’s national security and changing the constitution to allow the country’s military to act only in self-defense.
Abe, along with some of the country’s ultra-conservatives, viewed the US-authored post-WWII document as a humiliation and has long sought to give the country’s military, the Self Defense Force, a greater international role. However, many in the public are more supportive of the document and see more urgency in tackling the pandemic and the rising costs of food, fuel and childcare.
“We will inherit his will and address the issues he had to leave unreached,” Kishida said.
To propose a constitutional amendment, both chambers of Parliament must vote in favor of it by a two-thirds majority. Sunday’s vote left the LDP-led coalition and two opposition parties open to a charter revision, which got a head start in the upper house of parliament.
Experts suggest that Abe’s assassination may have garnered some sympathy votes for his party, and the ruling coalition alone now has 146 of the House’s 248 seats. All four parties together control 179. This group of four parties also has the necessary seats in the more powerful lower house.
Still, it’s far from clear: Komeito, the centrist party that’s part of the governing coalition, says changing the article in the constitution restricting the military is unnecessary. Additionally, any change would need to receive a majority of support in a national referendum to be accepted.
Abe, who resigned as prime minister two years ago due to ill health, said at the time he regretted leaving many of his goals unfinished, including overhauling the constitution.
A wake for Abe was held Monday night at a Buddhist temple in downtown Tokyo, where tributes were paid by Kishida and senior past and current political leaders, as well as ordinary mourners. Some burst into tears.
A funeral in the temple is planned by his family for Tuesday. The government is expected to hold a separate memorial service at a later date.
Earlier in the day, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Kishida to offer his condolences and deliver a letter from President Joe Biden to Abe’s family.
“We just want them to know that we deeply feel the loss on a personal level as well,” Blinken told Kishida. “Mainly I am here because the United States and Japan are more than allies – we are friends.”
Also on Monday, Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-Te paid his respects at Abe’s residence in Tokyo. Lai called Abe “a good friend who loves and supports Taiwan” on Facebook. Abe was known as a staunch supporter of Taiwan.
Japan’s longest-serving political leader, Abe, was the grandson of another prime minister and became the country’s youngest leader in 2006 at the age of 52. This tenure ended abruptly a year later, also because of his health.
He returned to the premiership in 2012, pledging to revitalize the nation and lift its economy out of its deflationary doldrums with his “Abenomics” formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. He won six national elections and built a rock-solid grip on power.
On Sunday, the suspect charged with his murder was handed over to a local prosecutor for further investigation. They can hold him for up to three weeks while they decide whether to formally charge him.
Police said suspect Tetsuya Yamagami told investigators he acted because of Abe’s alleged connection to an organization, which he denied. Some Japanese media identified the group as South Korea’s Unification Church and reported that the suspect’s mother had donated large sums of money to the church. They suggested that the donations and her subsequent bankruptcy were a possible motive.
The Japanese branch of the church admitted Monday that the suspect’s mother was a member but denied she was asking for large donations from anyone.
Church leader Tomihiro Tanaka declined to comment on the details of the donations, saying a police investigation is ongoing. In general, he acknowledged that some people had donated generously, but stressed that none were coerced.
Tanaka said Abe is not a member, although he supports his global peace movement.

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