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LDP group seeks referendum on Constitution change by next summer

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso (Mainichi)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The second-largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday to push for a referendum on proposed constitutional revisions before the upper house election next summer.

The move by the intraparty group led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso could accelerate debate over the issue ahead of the party's Sept. 20 leadership race as Abe and his rival Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, have different views on changes to the supreme law, especially its war-renouncing Article 9.

Accepting a written proposal from representatives of the group at his office, Abe, who on Sunday formally declared his candidacy in the race, said he "completely" shares the basic idea, according to one of the faction members.

Abe has made revising the supreme law, which has never been amended since its entry into force in 1947 during the U.S.-led postwar occupation, one of his chief political goals.

Speaking at a press conference to announce his campaign pledges later Monday, Ishiba reiterated his position, saying, "I don't think schedule should come first" and that "the public's deep understanding is indispensable" to amending the pacifist Constitution.

The prime minister is pushing constitutional revisions including adding an explicit reference to the Self-Defense Forces in the war-renouncing Article 9 to ensure there is no room to view them as "unconstitutional."

In the run-up to the upcoming LDP leadership contest, he has said the party should present constitutional amendment proposals to an extraordinary Diet session expected to be convened in the fall, apparently aiming for parliament to formally initiate a constitutional revision process during the regular Diet session next year.

Amending the supreme law requires approval by two-thirds majorities in both chambers of parliament, followed by majority support in a national plebiscite. The LDP and other forces supportive of revising the Constitution currently control the required seats in the Diet.

As five of the LDP's seven factions, including the Aso group, have expressed their readiness to support the incumbent, Abe is likely to incorporate their proposals into his leadership race campaign pledges, sources close to him said.

Ishiba, seen as facing an uphill battle in the two-horse race, has argued revisions to the Article 9 should not be rushed and instead stressed the need to change other aspects of the supreme law such as giving the government stronger powers to deal with emergencies, including natural disasters and military attacks from abroad.

In an attempt to bolster the Japan-U.S. alliance amid a rapidly changing security situation, Ishiba, who is known as a security hawk, proposed to set up permanent facilities in the United States for Japanese ground and air troops to conduct joint exercises with U.S. forces as Germany does.

On diplomacy, Ishiba suggested establishing a liaison office in Pyongyang that will be tasked with negotiating with North Korea on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea decades ago. Tokyo has no official diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.

Abe is currently on a nationwide tour aimed at broadening his support base among local rank-and-file LDP members. He visited Ishikawa, Fukui and Toyama prefectures on Monday.

In the leadership election in 2012, he was defeated by Ishiba, who was popular among local LDP members, in the initial round of voting, but came from behind in the runoff when only LDP Diet members cast ballots.

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