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Abe hopes to advance constitutional amendment debate before 2019

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference in Ise, Mie Prefecture, on Jan. 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is looking to advance discussion on constitutional amendment as much as possible by the end of this year as a number of major events await in 2019, such as the House of Councillors election and Emperor Akihito's abdication, as well as his eldest son Crown Prince Naruhito's enthronement.

Abe expressed his hope "as the president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)" to see deepened debate over his long-cherished goal of constitutional revision this year during a news conference on Jan. 4, apparently urging the ruling party's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution to move discussions forward to include a provision in Article 9 of Japan's supreme law defining the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). A senior government official said the extraordinary Diet session later this year is likely to be a turning point regarding the debate over constitutional amendment.

In the House of Representatives election last year, the LDP set four points of revisions to the Constitution -- defining the existence of the SDF, making education free as well as expanding and strengthening education services, establishing clauses to respond to emergency situations such as in case of a natural disaster and the elimination of House of Councillors constituencies comprised of multiple prefectures. Prime Minister Abe said during a radio show on Jan. 1 on Nippon Broadcasting System, "Since our party won by a landslide (in the 2017 lower house election), I naturally expect the (constitutional amendment) debate to move forward within the party."

At the same time, a consensus has not been reached within the LDP on whether to maintain the second paragraph of war-renouncing Article 9, which prohibits Japan from possessing any war potential, when adding a paragraph to define the SDF. In addition, the party has not worked on details of an emergency clause.

The party's constitutional revision promotion headquarters will reopen discussions as early as by the end of the month, with an eye on possibly preparing draft revisions by the time of the LDP convention scheduled on March 25 to facilitate full-scale debate at the Commissions on the Constitution at both houses of the Diet around this coming spring when deliberations on fiscal 2018 budgets will be completed. Nevertheless, it looks difficult, as far as time is concerned, for the Diet to initiate constitutional amendment by the end of a regular Diet session on June 20.

Meanwhile, the LDP's coalition partner Komeito, which lost strength in the lower house as a result of last year's election, is not in any hurry on constitutional revisions. The party refused to give the nod to the LDP's draft for the coalition partnership agreement, which stated the ruling coalition would "aim for revising the Constitution," and instead settled for a toned down statement, saying that the governing bloc would deepen discussions among the people for constitutional amendment and work on forming a consensus on the matter.

During a party meeting on Jan. 4, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi did not touch on the issue of constitutional revision, and said, "We hope to play a role in such a way that people would see the coalition government reliable because we are part of it."

On the other hand, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who also heads the opposition Nippon Ishin, is eager to move debate on constitutional amendment forward, saying on Jan. 4 that his party has already completed drafts for revised articles. "We are going to make our case at the Constitution Commissions," Matsui added. If the LDP advances discussions on constitutional revisions without Komeito, however, it would cause instability in the coalition.

Furthermore, a national referendum will be another hurdle to overcome even if the Diet initiates constitutional amendment. LDP constitutional revision promotion headquarters chairman Hiroyuki Hosoda has expressed his intention to pay close attention to the trend of public opinion over the matter, saying that there must be high hopes to win a majority "yes" vote before initiating the referendum.

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