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Despite election results, path for constitutional revisions remains unclear

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers reporters' questions at Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on the night of July 10, 2016. (Mainichi)

With the pro-constitutional amendment camp securing a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors thanks to the July 10 election victory, revision of the Constitution is now realistically on the government's political agenda. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated his intention to have the constitutional commissions in the House of Councillors and the House of Representatives begin discussion this fall during an extraordinary session of the Diet about which specific articles should be changed. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito will start exploring what amendments they can agree on; the biggest opposition Democratic Party (DP)'s moves will also become a central focus of the debate.

There is wide-ranging opinion in the pro-amendment bloc, which includes not just the ruling coalition parties, but opposition parties such as Initiatives from Osaka (also known as Osaka Ishin no Kai), on what changes should be made to the Constitution. As such, though the pro-amendment camp secured two-thirds of the seats in the upper house -- and have already done so in the lower house -- deliberation on amendments will not necessarily proceed without a hitch. In addition to Komeito and Initiatives from Osaka, the prime minister will have to gauge how the DP will respond in search of an intersection of varying demands at which agreement can be reached.

During the campaign period leading up to the upper house poll, the prime minister barely addressed the issue of constitutional amendment. It is believed to have been a tactic to avoid specific constitutional provisions from becoming a point of contention during the race, so that the LDP could enjoy a smooth start to a discussion of the specifics once the election was over. "The prime minister decided that we should not make the Constitution a major issue in the election, lest it intensify the divide between the ruling and opposition parties, and be used as a tool for political gamesmanship," a senior LDP official explained.

During a party leaders' debate held in June, before the election was officially announced, Prime Minister Abe indicated that he planned to reopen discussion on constitutional amendment in the constitutional commissions of the upper and lower houses in this fall's extraordinary Diet session. On a television program broadcast on the night of July 10, Abe expressed his expectations for how the specifics of the debate on constitutional revision will unfold, saying, "The Commissions on the Constitution will discuss this matter to glean what should be changed, and in what way."

However, the prospects of whether the debate on constitutional revision will progress in both chambers' respective commissions in one burst remain unclear. Getting into the nitty-gritty details of which constitutional provisions should be changed will bring the differences of opinion among various pro-amendment parties to the surface. Possible revision of war-renouncing Article 9 has drawn particular attention, but the prime minister has explicitly stated that changing Article 9 "will be difficult." LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura said July 5, "I don't know about 10 years from now, or however many years from now, but there is zero possibility (now) that Article 9 will be revised."

The second Constitution revision proposal created by the LDP in 2012 had extremely conservative characteristics, including changing the Self-Defense Forces to a national defense military. Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner, has said it does not approve of the draft. On a television program on the night of July 10, Abe himself said, "It will be difficult to revise the Constitution according to the draft."

That said, the first proposed amendment is likely to be a provision expected to garner wide-ranging agreement. In its upper house campaign platform, the LDP included a pledge to reform the upper house electoral system, with a vision to change the Constitution to elect at least one person from each of the country's 47 prefectures. The LDP expects that such a change will be easier for both the ruling and opposition parties to agree on. In addition, there are many in both the ruling and opposition parties who say that the establishment of an emergency clause that would permit the extension of legislators' terms and postponement of elections in the case of a major disaster may be an easy provision for which to obtain agreement.

The LDP's priority is to search for common ground with Komeito. Additionally, the LDP will promote cooperation with Initiatives from Osaka and the Party for Japanese Kokoro. Once it has solidified a united front with other pro-amendment parties, the LDP will explore constitutional revisions that the DP will find difficult to reject.

Initiatives from Osaka leader Ichiro Matsui told a press conference that his party will seek constitutional revisions that will make education free and reform the country's governance system. He said that it would be premature to discuss amending Article 9, and as for the emergency clause the LDP is eager to build into the Constitution, Matsui has pointed out that existing laws sufficiently serve the purpose of such a clause already. The ruling coalition is expected to give a certain level of consideration to the demands of Initiatives from Osaka.

During a party leaders' debate, Prime Minister Abe stated, "How the constitutional provisions will be changed is decided not in the (upper house) election, but in a national referendum." On a television program on the night of July 10, LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki said, "It will be important to carry out thorough discussions with the main opposition (Democratic Party)." Asked if he believed the election results were a sign that the public supports constitutional revision, Tanigaki indicated that he did not believe the results will lead immediately to constitutional revisions, "since we said very little about the Constitution (during the election campaign)."

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