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Efforts to revise Constitution fail to gain steam due to ruling, opposition camp clashes

A session of the House of Representatives Commission on the Constitution is seen underway while opposition parties are absent on Nov. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Moves toward Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's long-cherished goal of constitutional revisions failed to gain momentum as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Abe's efforts to move ahead with debate failed to draw key opposition parties into discussing the issue.

During the extraordinary Diet session that ends on Dec. 10, both chambers' commissions on the Constitution were unable to hold substantive deliberations.

The tug-of-war between the ruling and opposition camps over the matter has created a negative chain.

The LDP and the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) agreed to defer deliberations on a bill to revise the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan to the regular Diet session next year. The revision is called for to carry out a Constitutional change, which must be ratified by a national referendum.

At a meeting of representatives of ruling and opposition camps in the House of Representatives Commission on the Constitution on Dec. 7, the LDP also agreed to hold a hearing on Dec. 10 of the Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association over restrictions on TV advertising campaigns on a national referendum for constitutional amendment.

This ad issue is important because parties with financial muscle -- those in the ruling camp -- can run a longer, wider broadcasting campaign with their points of view. Meanwhile the two major opposition parties, which are opposed to constitutional revision by the Abe administration, want to place a stricter cap on such ads.

The agreement by the ruling party to have the ad hearing was a compromise gesture toward the CDP and the Democratic Party for the People, another key opposition party. Yet the overture did not achieve much for the LDP other than the opposition parties' attendance at the Dec. 7 meeting. The LDP hopes that these opposition parties will soften their stance toward constitutional amendment following the compromise.

It was as early as August when Prime Minister Abe declared that the LDP will speed up its efforts to hold consensus with opposition parties to initiate constitutional revisions in next year's regular Diet session.

"The LDP should accelerate efforts to form consensus on its draft of constitutional revisions so that the party can submit it to the next Diet session," Abe said. The prime minister miscalculated the impact that his statement would have on opposition parties.

The prime minister made this remark with an intention to gain solid support from conservatives prior to the September 2018 LDP presidential election he was running for a third term. He also hoped for the Diet initiation of constitutional revisions before the upper house race next summer.

Following his victory in the LDP race, Abe appointed conservative legislators -- former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo and former education minister Hakubun Shimomura -- as top representatives of the ruling bloc in the lower chamber's Commission on the Constitution. This personnel selection was a show of his eagerness for constitutional change toward his conservative support base.

However, the move only made opposition parties wary that the prime minister is making haste on constitutional revisions.

When it comes to changing the supreme law, pushing it through the Diet with the ruling block's overwhelming majority in the two chambers of the Diet is no easy task. The opinion prevalent in the Diet, even among senior LDP members, is that the ruling bloc should secure support even from main opposition parties for such a major legal change.

However, Shimomura, who heads the LDP's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution, and Shindo do not have close relations with legislators in the opposition camp.

Moreover, Shimomura's gaffe on the opposition camp's response to constitutional reform has dealt a further blow to Abe's aim to push ahead with debate on the issue.

On Nov. 9, Shimomura accused opposition parties of "walking off the job," angering legislators in the opposition camp. At this stage, it became certain that discussions on a bill to amend the constitutional referendum law and the LDP's draft of a Constitution would be deferred.

The LDP pushed ahead with a meeting of the lower chamber's constitutional panel on Nov. 29, but the gathering was boycotted by key opposition parties.

Since the ruling bloc rammed a bill designed to accept more foreign workers to alleviate serious labor shortages into law just before that, the move further provoked opposition parties. Pushing ahead with the meeting showed "the administration's extremely autocratic behavior," said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the CDP's Diet affairs chief.

-- Discrepancies emerge over SDF's authority

Another issue that prevented debate on constitutional revisions from going ahead was a gap between Abe and his ruling party about desirable changes. At a lower house Budget Committee session on Nov. 2, Prime Minister Abe admitted that there is discrepancy between his idea of writing the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) into the Constitution and the LDP's draft.

"The LDP's proposed clause would allow Japan to fully exercise the right to collective self-defense. It's different from your idea, isn't it?" asked Takeshi Shina of the Democratic Party for the People

"Yes. That's right," the prime minister replied.

Prime Minister Abe initially stated that stipulation of the existence of the SDF "wouldn't change the force's role and authority."

The LDP's constitutional revision promotion headquarters also intended to state in its draft that the SDF utilizes the "minimum necessary force" in conformity with the executive branch's view.

However, the headquarters changed the phrase to "take necessary self-defensive measures" in response to protests from conservative legislators within the party. This could be interpreted as allowing Japan to fully exercise the right to collective self-defense.

Yet Japan can only partially exercise the right to collective self-defense under the national security legislation that came into force in 2016.

Opposition parties will certainly grill the government over the discrepancy if the LDP presents its draft in the next Diet session.

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Tanaka, Hiroshi Odanaka, Political News Department)

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