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Abe gov't looks to add emergency clause for major disasters to Constitution

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to add to the Constitution an emergency clause on responses to large-scale disasters as the first step toward his long-cherished goal of constitutional amendment, a top government official says.

    The Abe administration has deemed it necessary to extend the tenure of House of Representatives members if a massive disaster occurs after the chamber is dissolved for a snap general election, as an exceptional measure.

    High-ranking government officials also believe that it will be easy to form a consensus on such a clause between ruling and opposition parties.

    Prime Minister Abe will aim to revise the postwar Constitution during his tenure that lasts until September 2018 on the assumption that those in favor of constitutional revisions will secure at least two-thirds of seats in the House of Councillors in the summer 2016 election.

    Under Article 96 of the Constitution, revisions to the supreme law can be proposed by at least two-thirds of members of each chamber of the Diet and must be approved by a majority in a referendum. The ruling coalition comprised of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito has two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives but falls short of such an overwhelming majority in the upper chamber.

    The top official points out that the prime minister does not think war-renouncing Article 9 can be amended while he is in office. Although there are calls within the LDP for an amendment of Article 9 that renounces war and bans the possession of any war potential, the official predicts that the government will begin amendment with an issue that can easily win public understanding.

    The security legislation that was enacted in September last year has opened the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way. As such, if the administration were to propose to revise the war-renouncing clause, it would hardly win support from Komeito.

    Calls for adding a clause on responses to massive disasters to the supreme law gained momentum following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Following the quake and tsunami, local elections in disaster-hit areas scheduled for April 2011 were postponed under a special measures law.

    However, tenures of Diet members are clearly fixed by Article 45 and 46 of the Constitution. Observations are prevalent that if a special measures law were to be enacted to extend legislators' terms as an exceptional measure, it would violate these clauses of the supreme law.

    Therefore, the Abe government is considering proposing to add an emergency clause to the Constitution to prevent a political vacuum in case of a massive disaster.

    A draft of a new Constitution that the LDP unveiled in 2012 when it was an opposition party calls for not only the extension of Diet members' tenures in case of a massive disaster but also temporary limits on private rights. If the LDP were to insist on such limits, it could stir protests from other political parties.

    Abe intends to spur debate on constitutional revisions after the upper house race. Among opposition parties, Osaka Ishin no Kai has clarified that it will cooperate with the prime minister over constitutional amendment.

    However, there are no prospects that a broad consensus on such revisions will be formed between ruling and opposition parties in the foreseeable future because many opposition legislators suspect that the Abe administration intends to use the addition of an emergency clause as a breakthrough for a future revision of Article 9.

    After making his comeback as prime minister in late 2012, Prime Minister Abe once sought to amend Article 96 in advance of other clauses to make it easier for the Diet to propose constitutional revisions by allowing the legislature to propose such an amendment through a concurring vote of over half of members of each chamber instead of two-thirds. However, the prime minister abandoned the plan after it was met with criticism from constitutional scholars as well as opposition parties.

    The LDP is seeking to propose constitutional amendment with the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). This is because amendment could be rejected in a referendum if the public is sharply divided over the issue.

    "We should begin constitutional revisions with clauses that can win support from at least the main opposition DPJ and a majority of affirmative votes in a referendum," says a senior LDP member.

    In a session of the lower chamber's Commission of the Constitution, the DPJ agreed to consider adding a clause on responses to emergency situations to the supreme law. However, the DPJ will not unconditionally cooperate with the LDP in discussions over constitutional revision. DPJ leader Katsuya Okada opposes amendment of Article 9 as long as Abe is in power.

    Those proactively promoting constitutional amendment within the LDP fear that if the Diet were to fail in its attempt to revise the Constitution, it would become permanently unable to amend the supreme law.

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