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Editorial: Constitutional revision referendum campaign rules should be clarified

Revisions to the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan have emerged as a focal point during the ongoing Diet session, which has been extended to July 22.

The Public Offices Election Act has been amended to make it easier for citizens to vote, such as by setting up common polling stations at major department stores and relaxing requirements for absentee voting.

However, these do not apply to national referenda on constitutional amendment. The ruling coalition proposed during the ongoing Diet session to revise the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan to set voting rules similar to those in the amended Public Offices Election Act. The governing bloc is asking opposition parties to jointly sponsor a bill to revise the legislation.

It is only natural to improve rules on constitutional amendment referenda. At the same time, there is another point of contention -- how to create a system for campaigns and public relations activities in favor of or against constitutional revision proposals.

When the Osaka Municipal Government held a local referendum on the pros and cons of the Osaka Metropolis plan in 2015, then Mayor Toru Hashimoto characterized the poll as a rehearsal for constitutional revisions. He essentially applied rules on campaigning for national referenda on constitutional revisions to the local referendum, with the exception of a ban on door-to-door canvassing.

Those promoting the metropolis plan -- under which the city of Osaka would have been dissolved and reorganized into special wards like those in Tokyo -- spent hundreds of millions of yen on their campaign over a one-month period. Hashimoto, the driving force behind the plan, appeared in a frequently aired TV commercial. This raised widespread concerns that money rather than calm discussions would influence public opinion. In the end, Osaka residents voted down the metropolis plan.

During the 2016 referendum on Britain's continued membership in the EU, the message "We send the EU 350 million pounds a week" written on the sides of a campaign bus became a symbol of the pro-Brexit camp. However, the figure later turned out to be false.

A national referendum on constitutional revision, which would ask the public whether the supreme law should be reformed, is a foundation block of democracy. More freedom and fairness must be guaranteed in such a referendum than in public offices elections.

However, the current Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan provides for loose regulations on campaigning, and no punitive measures would be taken except in cases of systematic vote-buying. Therefore, public opinion could very well be distorted by a certain ideology or powerful political movements.

Systems or rules to guarantee freedom of expression and the right to know, such as setting an upper limit on the amount of campaign funds, should be created.

In the case of constitutional amendment, it is desirable for ruling and opposition parties to jointly propose revisions to the supreme law after thorough debate in the Diet. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apparently intends to allow the ruling bloc alone to initiate constitutional revision even if opposition parties voice objections. Measures to ensure freedom and fairness in national referenda should be implemented while bearing in mind the danger of online trolling and propaganda designed to spread biased views.

There are numerous more challenges, such as the pros and cons of introducing a minimum voter turnout system so that the votes are legitimate, and the establishment of a secretariat to a panel of 10 legislators each from both chambers of the Diet to manage referenda.

To hold a referendum that could satisfy everybody, efforts to improve the procedure for amending the Constitution need to be undertaken in parallel with debate on the content of revisions.

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