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PM Abe keen to make constitutional amendment key issue for upper house election

Shinzo Abe (Mainichi)

In the coming summer House of Councillors election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is aiming to win the two-thirds majority in the upper chamber needed to propose constitutional revisions, he said during an appearance on a Jan. 10 NHK program.

    Abe said that he is looking to achieve this with the cooperation of some opposition parties which also support revision of the Constitution. His remark underscored his hopes to highlight the issue, but some members within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition have expressed reservations about the prime minister's obvious moves toward amending the Constitution.

    Abe's motive behind making such a crucial comment -- sure to cause a stir among both ruling and opposition parties -- at the beginning of the election year was his wish to seize the initiative in the constitutional amendment debate.

    "They are positive about changing the Constitution and they are the people with a strong sense of responsibility for the future," Abe said of Osaka Ishin no Kai, or Initiatives from Osaka, a party formed by former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. Party leader and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui announced on Jan. 4 that his party would work out a constitutional amendment proposal and present it before the upper house election.

    While Abe's remarks about Initiatives from Osaka reflect his high hopes for the minor party, its political capabilities in national elections is unknown. There is no guarantee that cooperation between Abe's LDP and the Osaka party will lead to changes in the Constitution.

    Abe chose to make the controversial comment nonetheless, in hopes of making the issue more politically real and immediate. In the Japanese political arena, many legislators -- in ruling parties or the opposition -- tend to distance the constitutional amendment debate from key issues during elections. Even among senior LDP members, some say there is no need to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 for the moment, after the September 2015 passage of security-related legislation that already opens the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way.

    Officials close to the prime minister, however, argue that the current Constitution has fundamental flaws since there is no emergency clause for responses to large-scale disasters, and that Japan's "postwar" phase will never end unless the Constitution is changed. Abe's latest remarks underscored his will to keep the debate over constitutional amendments fresh and alive as a political issue heading into the election.

    At the same time, the prime minister also knows that there are high hurdles to revising to the Constitution. One LDP faction leader said Abe's comment merely meant that he was willing to work on constitutional amendments under the right conditions.

    Abe Cabinet's approval rate dropped as the controversial special state secret protection law and security-related legislation -- both of which were Abe pet projects -- triggered greater public opposition than expected. A source close to the LDP says, "The prime minister is trying to judge the degree of people's resistance to constitutional amendment. If he made similar comments in May and they triggered public opposition, it would directly affect the upper house election. But rejection (of the latest remarks) would calm down" by election time.

    There seems to be another motive in Abe's mind when mentioning the issue of constitutional amendment -- a possible double election. Some speculate that the only way to clear the high hurdle of securing a two-thirds majority in the upper house is to hold a double election with the House of Representatives -- seen as likely to benefit the ruling parties.

    On the possibility of a double election, LDP General Council Chairman Toshihiro Nikai said on Jan. 9, "There is no doubt that the government wants to hold the elections on the same day." LDP Policy Research Council Chairwoman Tomomi Inada, who is a close Abe ally, also told reporters on the next day that she cannot deny the possibility of a double election if the prime minister judges that he needs a new mandate.

    However, some members of both the LDP and junior coalition partner Komeito have expressed reservations about a double election.

    Nikai said on Jan. 9 that he was opposed to holding a double election, and questioned moves that were fuelling speculation about it when there is no "just cause." At the same time, the constitutional amendment issue -- over which Prime Minister Abe wants to take initiative -- could well be "a just cause" for a double election. In that regard, Abe's latest comment was effective in keeping both ruling and opposition parties in check.

    In addition, his remarks could split the opposition parties. Yorihisa Matsuno, leader of the Japan Innovation Party, said on a Jan. 10 NHK program that his party has had constitutional amendment in its mind since the party formed. If the gap widens between the opposition parties on the Constitution, it could interfere with moves among them to nominate joint candidates in strategically vital constituencies with one seat up for grabs in the upper house election.

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