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Abe scrambling to avoid constitutional revision becoming election issue

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scrambling to play down the ruling coalition's moves to amend the pacifist Constitution following the June 22 launch of campaigning for the House of Councillors election.

Four opposition parties including the Democratic Party (DP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), however, are focusing their campaigns on blocking pro-constitutional amendment forces from winning a two-thirds majority in the upper chamber -- the threshold necessary for initiating constitutional revision.

On June 22, Abe slammed opposition parties during his stump speeches at four locations in Kumamoto and Fukushima prefectures. "The JCP said the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are unconstitutional. We can't entrust our future to such irresponsible people," Abe said. However, he stopped short of mentioning the issue of constitutional reform.

DP leader Katsuya Okada and JCP head Kazuo Shii have repeatedly denounced Abe for skirting around his cherished goal of constitutional revision, calling for the prime minister to firmly discuss the supreme law during election campaigns. These moves lie within the campaign strategies of the DP, JCP and two other opposition parties, which are aiming to bring to the fore their objections to constitutional revision in vying with the ruling coalition and other pro-amendment forces in the race.

The four opposition parties, despite their policy differences, have managed to field a joint candidate in each of the constituencies where one seat is up for grabs in the July 10 upper house election -- under their common goal of repealing Japan's new security legislation. The results in those constituencies are likely to hold the key to the overall election outcome.

During their campaigns, opposition parties have particularly highlighted a sense of crisis over moves to revise war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. In his first campaign speech on June 22, DP leader Okada advocated thwarting moves to amend Article 9 -- a position echoed by JCP leader Shii, who warned, "Revising Article 9 is the prime minister's main objective."

A day earlier, Abe said during a party leaders' debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, "If (constitutional amendment) is to be made a point of contention (in the upper house election), it must be clarified which article will be changed and how. However, opinions haven't been put together in the Commission on the Constitution (in each chamber of the Diet)" -- suggesting that constitutional reform shouldn't be an election issue.

Abe is apparently cautious about playing up the constitutional issue, as he suffered a major setback in the 2007 upper house election -- held during his first stint as prime minister -- after he suggested making constitutional revision a key issue ahead of the race. He apparently assumes focusing on pushing the Abenomics economic policy mix further will serve him better, just as in the last upper house race in 2013 and the 2014 House of Representatives election.

As the public approval rate for the Abe Cabinet plunged following the controversial passage of the security laws last fall, Abe is apparently wary of being embroiled in the opposition camp's moves to make "the issue of revising Article 9" a major point of contention in election campaigns.

On June 20, Okada told reporters, "The prime minister apparently believes discussing constitutional amendment would work against him in the election."

With his eyes set on post-election strategies, Abe also possibly sees facing off against the opposition camp during the campaign as unfavorable. If the clash between ruling and opposition parties over specific articles in the Constitution intensifies during the campaign period, it would certainly affect their debate after the election. While each Diet chamber's Commission on the Constitution remains stalled, the prime minister told an NHK program on June 22, "(The Constitution's articles subject to revision) should be discussed calmly in the Commissions on the Constitution, and revisions approved by a two-thirds majority of legislators, regardless of whether they are from ruling or opposition parties, must be put to a referendum."

Okada, meanwhile, has claimed, "The prime minister has a false notion of what constitutionalism is. It is hard to discuss the issue with him." Okada is apparently prioritizing a campaign of tactics to keep in step with the JCP and has moved with JCP head Shii to attack the prime minister.

Even within the ruling camp, there is a strong view that constitutional revision must be carried forward based on a consensus with the main opposition party. Moves to seek such a consensus through constructive debate, however, is nowhere in sight.

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