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Little talk on key issue of Constitution revision as election day looms

As campaigning for the July 10 House of Councillors election enters its final days, various news outlets are reporting that the pro-constitutional amendment camp -- including the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), its junior coalition partner Komeito, and Initiatives from Osaka -- has a lead on the non-constitutional amendment camp, with the former showing momentum that could allow it to capture two-thirds of the seats in the upper house, when those that are not contested in the upcoming race are included. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party (DP) and other opposition parties against constitutional revision are fighting desperately to prevent that from happening.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose goal is to revise the Constitution during his tenure, stumped in four locations in Aomori Prefecture on July 6, but said not one word about constitutional amendment. Even as it emerged that the pro-amendment camp may have a lead on the anti-revision camp, Abe's policy of emphasizing his economic policies has remained unchanged. Opposition parties criticize this tactic as one that "covers up the real issue at stake," but so far, it seems to be working.

If the pro-amendment bloc were to capture two-thirds of the seats in the upper house, thereby laying down the foundations for the Diet to propose constitutional amendment, the prime minister is sure to launch specific discussions on the matter. During an online debate among party leaders held before the campaign period began, the prime minister stated that he intended to convene the Commissions on the Constitution (in both chambers of the Diet)." If things go his way, full-fledged deliberations on the Constitution are expected to start in an extraordinary session of the Diet this fall. The focus then will be on narrowing down which parts of the Constitution will be subject to revision.

The ruling LDP's 2012 draft Constitution, which has been widely criticized by experts, displays an extremely conservative agenda and includes a stipulation to make the current Self-Defense Forces into a national defense military. But Abe himself is not wedded to that draft, and is expected to start the process of revision with parts of the Constitution whose amendments will be more likely and easily garner support from other parties. For the time being, it is unlikely that Abe will try to change Article 9 of the Constitution, about which public opinion is clearly split.

Abe is expected to try creating a special provision in the Constitution that will extend the terms of House of Representatives members if a crisis, such as a massive natural disaster, occurs after the House of Representatives has been dissolved. LDP deputy chief Masahiko Komura, meanwhile, has suggested that the Constitution be revised to designate members of the House of Councillors as prefectural representatives as a step toward remedying vote-value disparity.

Initiatives from Osaka, also known as Osaka Ishin no Kai, is ready to jump on the LDP's draft Constitution bandwagon if the LDP agrees to the former's constitutional amendment proposals, including making all education free.

But it is the LDP's ruling coalition partner, Komeito, who truly holds the key to the debate on constitutional amendment. Komeito has a high regard for the current Constitution, and has said it aspires to "add" to it, instead of "revising" it. The LDP and Komeito have highly divergent views depending on individual constitutional provisions. Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi has repeatedly slammed the brakes on the ruling party's sloppy and hasty discussion regarding constitutional amendment, and if the LDP is to place top priority on maintaining its coalition with Komeito, it will first have to give its coalition partner a convincing enough argument to bring it around.

If the pro-amendment camp does not secure two-thirds of the seats in the upper house, the LDP is expected to approach the DP, the largest opposition party, for its cooperation. The DP, however, is poised to refuse participation in the LDP's discussion on constitutional revision while Abe is in power. The longer the LDP's negotiations over cooperation in the LDP's proposal for constitutional amendment take -- first with Komeito and then the DP -- the closer Abe inches toward the end of his term as LDP president in September 2018.

Regardless of whether the LDP and other parties in the pro-amendment camp capture two-thirds of the upper house seats, there are more than a few within the party who argue that without making efforts to obtain the DP's cooperation, the path to constitutional amendment will fail to open up, according to one senior LDP official. This is because even if the Diet were to propose constitutional amendment, the proposal must gain majority affirmative votes in a national referendum for amendments to be passed. If the pro-amendment bloc does not secure two-thirds of the seats, considerations will have to be made to opposition parties by the Commissions on the Constitution in both chambers of the Diet.

"Ishin (Initiatives from Osaka) agrees with the LDP's push to amend the Constitution. There also are those who agree in the DP," Prime Minister Abe said on a television program on public broadcaster NHK in June in a move to stir up controversy, knowing that members of the DP are split on the issue.

In response, DP chief Katsuya Okada told a press conference July 6 that the DP would not comply with any efforts by the LDP to bring the DP into its discussion on constitutional amendment, saying, "As long as we are looking at the current LDP draft Constitution as a working draft, there are problems. The prime minister's understanding of constitutionalism is wrong." Because many of the DP candidates running in the proportional-representation system in the upper house election are in favor of keeping the current Constitution, and all DP candidates in single-seat constituencies nationwide have received the support of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the DP is not in a position to make easy concessions to the LDP.

For the LDP to get the DP involved in its debate on constitutional revision, the former will have to make significant compromises, which could obscure the very purpose of constitutional revision.

Among independent upper house members whose seats are not contested in the upcoming election, some have not explicitly stated their stance toward constitutional revision. If the election ends up with the pro-amendment camp just a few seats short of taking two-thirds of the upper chamber, the LDP is expected to work on bringing those lawmakers on board, including possible headhunting of DP legislators.

If the pro-amendment camp wins at least two-thirds of the upper house seats, that would signal an upset for the electoral alliance of four opposition parties: the DP, the JCP, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the People's Life Party and Taro Yamamoto and Friends. Because there were some in the DP who were skeptical about such a united front to begin with, a discussion on whether to continue or quit the alliance is likely to become a major issue as the party leadership election set for late September approaches.

Meanwhile, DP acting leader Akira Nagatsuma indicated that the alliance was having a favorable impact, saying on a BS Fuji Television program July 5 that the 32 single-seat constituencies across the country "are putting up a much better fight than predicted."

However, the alliance between the DP and the JCP, which have basic policy differences concerning national security and other areas, has been repeatedly criticized by the ruling coalition. Additionally, JCP policy chief Yasufumi Fujino made the gaffe of calling the country's defense budget a "budget for killing people," and subsequently stepped down from his post. The JCP remains enthusiastic about an opposition alliance in the next House of Representatives election, but if the alliance loses a significant number of seats in single-seat constituencies in the upper house election, the DP is bound to see some of its members call for a re-examination of the alliance. A conservative DP lawmaker calls for a rebuilding of the party, arguing that "if the biggest opposition party cannot fight without an alliance with other parties, it surely cannot take over the reins of government."

DP leader Okada is putting his post on the line for the upper house election. One senior DP official, however, says, "Regardless of whether or not Okada runs in the next party leadership election, we will need a fresh re-launch of opposition collaboration."

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