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No chances seen for starting constitutional revision steps due to LDP, Komeito differences

Members of the House of Councillors Commission on the Constitution are seen at a meeting on Dec. 6, 2017. (Mainichi)

There are no clear prospects for the timing of the Diet initiating procedures for making constitutional revisions due largely to differences between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito over the issue.

The governing bloc secured over two-thirds of seats in the House of Representatives in the Oct. 22 general election -- necessary to propose constitutional amendment in the chamber.

However, the two parties differ over constitutional amendment. Moreover, in 2019 nationwide local elections will be held, Emperor Akihito will abdicate, a House of Councillors election will be held and the 8 percent consumption tax is scheduled to be raised to 10 percent, leaving the governing bloc little leeway to work on constitutional reform.

The LDP's scenario in which the Diet would propose a draft of constitutional revisions and hold a referendum by the end of 2018 at the earliest appears difficult to achieve.

Multiple LDP legislators pointed out at a meeting of the party's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution on Dec. 20 that considering the political agenda and the Imperial Household's schedule from now on, there are limits to the timing of proposing a draft for constitutional amendments and holding a referendum. They then called for efforts to initiate constitutional revisions at a regular Diet session next year.

However, it looks to be not until after spring next year that the commissions on the Constitution at both chambers of the Diet will initiate full-scale efforts to amend the supreme law because the ruling bloc will prioritize deliberations on the fiscal 2018 state budget draft until the end of March next year.

Komeito, which is aiming to incorporate additional clauses into the Constitution while retaining the supreme law's basic framework, remains cautious about constitutional reform.

"Consensus hasn't been formed on specific clauses that should be amended," said Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Komeito, at a press conference on Dec. 19.

Opposition parties are distancing themselves from the move toward constitutional revisions led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), has criticized the prime minister for prioritizing constitutional revisions over other important issues. "I don't think the (constitutional) issue takes priority over other challenges," he told a media conference on Dec. 18.

The CDP, which is the largest opposition bloc in the lower house, has proposed constitutional revisions to limit the prime minister's authority to dissolve the lower chamber to call a general election in a move to keep the Abe government in check.

Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), which Prime Minister Abe hopes will cooperate with the LDP in constitutional revisions, saw its strength in the lower chamber decrease in the October general election.

Moreover, a gap has widened between the LDP and Nippon Ishin. While the latter calls for constitutional amendment to make education free of charge, the LDP has deleted the phrase "making tuition free" from an outline of the party's discussions on constitutional revisions.

Under these circumstances, even if the LDP were to steer the commissions on the Constitution at both Diet chambers in a high-handed manner and propose a draft of constitutional revisions, there is no guarantee that the amendment would win a majority of votes in a referendum.

The LDP has not ruled out the possibility of holding a referendum on constitutional revisions simultaneously with the upper house election in summer 2019. However, a campaign for the referendum could coincide with the Emperor's abdication and Crown Prince Naruhito's accession to the Imperial Throne. If a referendum were to be held simultaneously with an upper house poll, the Emperor "wouldn't be able to abdicate amid a quiet environment," as a senior member of the ruling coalition points out.

A number of sources close to the government, who have recently met with the prime minister, share the view that Abe has no intention of rushing to amend the Constitution as he had in the past.

With his eyes set on being re-elected as LDP president in a party leadership race scheduled for September 2018, Abe is expected to carefully consider the timing of constitutional revisions while saying he wants to make 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held, a turning point for a new Japan, in an effort to maintain momentum for constitutional reform.

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