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Emperor's abdication will affect PM Abe's constitutional revision schedule

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Mainichi)

The enactment of a law allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate on June 9 looks certain to impact Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cherished goal of revising the pacifist Constitution during his time in office, as some in his administration have voiced opposition against causing a split of public opinion over constitutional amendment ahead of the Emperor's abdication.

Prime Minister Abe is believed to schedule his political agenda based on the possibility that Emperor Akihito will step down at the end of December 2018. While Abe eyes a national referendum on constitutional revision in 2018 at the earliest, the rift between ruling and opposition parties would deepen if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hastily tries to initiate constitutional amendment in the Diet.

Some in the Abe administration argue that it is unfavorable for public opinion to be split into two over the pros and cons of constitutional change prior to the Emperor's retirement. However, it is apparently not easy for Abe to envision a future strategy for his administration with an eye on the time when he hopes he will be serving a third term as LDP president from September 2018.

After the House of Councillors passed the special abdication bill into law on June 9, House of Representatives Speaker Tadamori Oshima told a press conference, "I hope it will be made sure, with no omission, that preparations will be advanced without any delay toward the Emperor's abdication and the Crown Prince's ascension to the Imperial Throne so the new emperor will be welcomed by the public in celebration."

The next LDP presidential election is slated for September 2018, to be followed by the expiration of lower house members' terms in December that year. Therefore, a senior LDP official points out, "The fourth Abe Cabinet needs to be launched by the end of November 2018 at the latest." Many in the ruling parties speculate that Prime Minister Abe may avoid calling a lower house election toward the end of the current legislators' terms, which will possibly overlap with the timing of the Emperor's abdication, and instead dissolve the lower chamber for a snap general election soon after the LDP leadership election.

The LDP is aspiring to propose constitutional revision during the ordinary session of the Diet next year. While it is necessary to have a space of 60 to 180 days between a proposal for constitutional amendment in the legislature and a national referendum over the issue, it would be possible to have a national referendum coincide with the lower house election if Abe dissolved the lower chamber right after the LDP presidential election.

However, such an LDP-led schedule for constitutional reform would face a backlash from the largest opposition Democratic Party and other parties, making it likely for a national referendum over constitutional revision to be an uphill battle, according to an aide to the prime minister.

There is also a scenario in which Prime Minister Abe will dissolve the lower house for a general election before constitutional amendment is initiated in the Diet, and will throw his hat in the ring for the LDP presidential race after further cementing his administration's footing by securing victory in the lower house race. However, that scenario also entails the possible risk of pro-constitutional revision forces losing the two-thirds majority in the lower chamber, which is necessary for initiating constitutional amendment, pushing back Abe's goal of "seeing a revised Constitution take effect in 2020."

As of now, there is no "best scenario for the administration" to make a success in both the lower house election and a national referendum on constitutional reform prior to the Emperor's abdication, according to a source close to the LDP.

Meanwhile, unified local elections are scheduled for April 2019 and the upper house election for that summer. It would be, therefore, well in time for Abe's 2020 goal for implementing a revised Constitution if a referendum was held in conjunction with the upper house poll after the Emperor steps down and the new emperor accedes to the Chrysanthemum Throne. If a national referendum comes after the upper house race, however, it would then coincide with the consumption tax hike scheduled for October 2019, possibly affecting national referendum results, according to observers.

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