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LDP loss in Tokyo assembly race casts doubts over Abe's plans to revise Constitution

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun at his office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on July 3, 2017. (Mainichi)

The setback that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, suffered in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election has cast a shadow over his aspiration to revise the postwar Constitution.

Prime Minister Abe's predominance over the political world appears to be declining following the LDP's defeat in the Tokyo assembly race.

The government had already been under fire for the prime minister's alleged favoritism over a plan by Kake Educational Institution, run by a close friend of Abe, to establish a veterinary school and other scandals. If the prime minister were to insist on sticking to his schedule for constitutional amendment that he worked out and lead discussions on, he could come under further criticism.

Under a draft of a new Constitution that the LDP released in 2012, war-renouncing Article 9 would be fundamentally rewritten to provide for the establishment of a "national defense military." There are still quite a few members within the LDP supporting this proposal.

On the May 3 Constitution Memorial Day, however, Prime Minister Abe proposed to add a clause providing for the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) while retaining paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 9, which renounce war and ban Japan from possessing any war potential, respectively.

The tide within the LDP quickly changed after Abe's announcement, which was because of his predominance within the party. However, if Abe's prevalence is shaken, he would not be able to suppress criticism of his proposal or many LDP legislators' calls for fundamental reform of Article 9.

Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who is an advocate of deleting Paragraph 2 of Article 9, warned Abe against hastily going ahead with his proposed revisions. He said on July 3 that the party had not assumed that constitutional revision proposals would be submitted to an extraordinary Diet session scheduled for this fall.

In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun on the same day, Prime Minister Abe dismissed criticism that he is quickly seeking to revise the supreme law. "There's time for discussions. We're supposed to hold debate until the end of the extraordinary session," he said.

What he said suggests, however, that even if the LDP's proposal is submitted to the extraordinary session, full-scale debate on the proposal will not start until next year's regular session. He can't afford much time to have the constitutional amendment proposal approved by at least two-thirds of members of each chamber and then submit it between May and June 2018 for a referendum.

The prime minister is sticking to the schedule that he has proposed because the term of lower house members expires in December 2018. If the LDP were to decrease its strength in the next lower house election and those in favor of constitutional revisions lose a two-thirds majority, it would be almost impossible for a revised Constitution to come into force in 2020 as planned by the prime minister.

Prime Minister Abe emphasized that he has no intention of delaying debate on constitutional amendment. "Since the Diet has authority to initiate constitutional revisions, it also has responsibility to do so," he said.

A source close to the LDP said, "Even though the LDP lost in the metropolitan assembly election, the prime minister won't easily give up on constitutional revisions."

After defeat in the assembly race, it is difficult for Abe to dissolve the lower chamber this year. If the Diet were to initiate constitutional revisions at next year's regular Diet session, the only suitable timing for him to dissolve the lower house would be around the LDP presidential election in September 2018.

Prime Minister Abe did not rule out the possibility that a referendum on constitutional revisions and a lower house election will be held simultaneously. "We need to consider the matter from various angles," he told the Mainichi Shimbun.

If he is to continue leading debate on constitutional revisions, however, it is indispensable to boost the approval ratings of his Cabinet that have plummeted recently. Abe is considering reshuffling his Cabinet and the LDP leadership as early as this month in a bid to secure his influence, but a former Cabinet member pointed out that Abe cannot drastically reorganize his Cabinet.

"If the prime minister were serious, he should replace all members who were involved in problems, but I don't think he can do that," the former minister said.

The former minister also suggested that Abe would not be able to give the impression that the Cabinet lineup has been renewed if Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who came under fire for calling documents on the Kake Educational Institution scandal "anonymous objectionable documents," and other key members were to stay on.

Among policy measures, Prime Minister Abe expressed particular enthusiasm during the interview about reforming the way people work with the aim of reducing long work hours as well as "a revolution in human resource development" in which intensive investment will be made in education.

However, slogans alone cannot heighten people's expectations for his government.

Masazumi Gotoda, deputy secretary-general of the LDP, revealed on his website that he had been admonished by a senior party member over a campaign speech during the metropolitan assembly race in which he expressed regret over the way the government was being run.

"The election outcome is inevitable considering the current leadership that manages the party in an inappropriate manner," he wrote on his website.

Such criticism could intensify depending on the way the prime minister manages his administration.

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