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Diet commissions to discuss minimum turnout for constitutional revision referendum

The commissions on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet are expected to start discussing setting a minimum voter turnout required for a national referendum on constitutional revisions to be valid.

When the National Referendum Law was enacted in May 2007, the House of Councillors passed an additional resolution to consider a minimum turnout system, but no discussions on the issue have been held since. While narrowing down constitutional items to be revised, the Diet will need to work on sorting out and improving the national referendum system.

The Diet needs to secure at least a two-thirds majority in both chambers in order to propose a constitutional amendment, followed by a national referendum. The proposed constitutional revision must be approved by a majority of referendum voters.

If a minimum turnout system is established and if the voter turnout fails to reach a set level, the constitutional amendment will fall through. In the process of deliberating the national referendum bill, the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) argued that if voter turnout is low, the validity of the referendum outcome could not be guaranteed.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) stood against setting minimum voter turnout in any case, arguing that it would trigger boycotts among anti-revision forces and it is difficult to set specific minimum turnout, among other reasons. When the upper house voted on the national referendum bill in a plenary session, it adopted an additional resolution, which said that the purpose as well as the pros and cons of setting a minimum turnout would be discussed at the commissions on the Constitution.

Shinkun Haku, a Democratic Party lawmaker and former vice Cabinet minister who serves as chief organizer of the upper house Commission of the Constitution, said that he would bring up the minimum turnout issue in the commission.

"We will not be able to move forward without sorting out the details of the additional resolution," he said. A senior LDP official has also acknowledged the need for discussion on the system. The upper house Commission on the Constitution is to hold its first meeting since the last upper house election on Nov. 16. But it is expected to hold discussion on the issue only after the New Year.

A nationwide survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun in April 2007, immediately before the enactment of National Referendum Law, showed 77 percent of respondents saying that voter turnout should exceed a certain level. Elsewhere in the world, South Korea and Russia set minimum constitutional revision referendum turnout at 50 percent of eligible voters.

Sophia University professor emeritus Katsutoshi Takami said, "Even if a referendum does not meet the minimum turnout, it does not mean that a proposed constitutional revision is voted down. Renewed procedures can be taken to try to revise (the Constitution). A national referendum in which few people take part goes off the track of the concept of constitutional amendment."

Nov. 3 marks the 70th anniversary of the promulgation of Japan's Constitution.

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