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PM Abe's initiative evident in LDP's debate for constitutional revision draft

Okiharu Yasuoka, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution, addresses the group's meeting on June 6, 2017. (Mainichi)

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) launched a full-fledged discussion on a concrete draft for revisions to the Constitution on June 6, at the apparent initiative of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is keen to have the pacifist supreme law modified during his time in office.

At a board meeting of the LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution, where the party's four-point proposals for constitutional amendment were presented, Prime Minister Abe's close allies and other veteran lawmakers in favor of Abe's stance filled the seats, though Abe himself was not present. This came in contrast to previous party debates on constitutional revision, where officials attaching weight to coordination with opposition parties, including headquarters chief Okiharu Yasuoka, spearheaded the debate.

During the meeting, four items that the LDP eyes for possible inclusion in its constitutional revision draft were presented -- providing for the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the Constitution, guaranteeing free education, creating a clause that would enable the term of Diet members to be extended in the event of major disasters and other emergencies, and eliminating the merged constituencies in the House of Councillors and achieving other electoral reform.

In a video message released on May 3 during a meeting of a pro-constitutional revision group, Abe expressed his strong desire to see a revised Constitution take effect in 2020, with a new clause on the SDF added while upholding the first and second paragraphs of war-renouncing Article 9 of the supreme law. LDP constitutional revision promotion headquarters secretary-general Yoko Kamikawa told reporters, "We take the prime minister's statement seriously, but we based our debate (on the four items) on the results of previous broad discussions on the issue." However, the choice for the four items was obviously influenced by the prime minister's initiative.

As a result of the recent reshuffle of the LDP constitutional revision promotion headquarters, LDP Executive Acting Secretary-General Hakubun Shimomura, who is a close ally of Prime Minister Abe, Yasutoshi Nishimura, special adviser to Abe as LDP president, and LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura were appointed as board members of the headquarters -- under the apparent mission of "watching over" Yasuoka and others who prioritize coordination with the opposition bloc. Komura had led ruling party consultations with Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, over security legislation and a special bill to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate. Meanwhile, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who has explicitly voiced opposition to Abe's proposals, was also enlisted in the headquarters.

The LDP leadership is looking into adding what it calls "Article 9-2" to the Constitution to define the SDF's presence. By introducing a new article independent from Article 9 and ruling out the possibility of any "revisions" to Article 9 itself, the LDP apparently aims to convince Komeito to approve the proposal. As the opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) has also expressed support for the "Article 9-2" plan, the LDP seeks to initiate constitutional amendment in the Diet by appealing to the conservative wing within the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP).

The free education proposal is aimed at winning over Nippon Ishin, which has called for free education and governance system reform as items for constitutional amendment. Komeito, however, has been wary of the LDP proposal as the prospect of securing the several trillion yen in resources that would be necessary for achieving free education is nowhere in sight.

None of the four items proposed by the LDP for inclusion in its constitutional revision draft look certain to win a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber of the Diet. As the DP maintains reservations about adding the SDF clause and guaranteeing free education in a revised Constitution, the LDP's quadruple proposal may not gain support.

Furthermore, the LDP faces intraparty obstacles to the amendment drive. At the June 6 meeting, Ishiba referred to the party's 2012 constitutional revision draft that incorporates the creation of "national defense forces" into Article 9 and said, "The draft was created after having considerably long hours of debate. If Article 9 is to be discussed, we must base our discussion on the 2012 draft." Ishiba also raised questions about Prime Minister Abe's way of pushing for constitutional reform, telling reporters, "Up until now, the LDP's debate on the Constitution has been carried out in a way all party legislators could participate in the discussion. It is unprecedented that only a handful of members debate the matter and present a conclusion beforehand."

LDP legislators who have laid weight to coordination with opposition forces are also wary of the move, as they have viewed the emergency clause that would enable the Diet members' term to be extended in contingencies as the primary item for building consensus between ruling and opposition parties. One such legislator commented, "The prime minister has switched from a policy of wooing the DP to one for teaming up with Komeito and Nippon Ishin. I wonder if we can push through a national referendum on constitutional revision that way."

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