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Ishiba attacks Abe for shifting stance on constitutional revision

LDP heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, center, is seen at a meeting of the party's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution in this file photo taken on March 22, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Constitutional revision is looking to become a main issue in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seeking a third term, and his contender Shigeru Ishiba, as campaigning is set to begin.

"What Mr. Abe was saying when he was the secretary-general (of the LDP) was almost identical to my current opinion," said Ishiba, 61, who has also served as the secretary-general of Japan's ruling party. "I would like to discuss with him how he is going to be a trailblazer in a new era," Ishiba continued during a TV interview on Aug. 29, when asked about constitutional revision. Ishiba is calling for the removal of Paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the Constitution, which denies Japan's "right of belligerency," based on a 2012 LDP draft of changes to the supreme law. His latest remark was an indirect criticism of the prime minister's change of mind.

In May last year, Abe, 63, revealed an idea to maintain both the article's first paragraph, which renounces war and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes, and the second paragraph, while adding a reference to the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The prime minister added that the government's interpretation of Article 9 would remain the same, indicating his intention to seek an agreement on the issue between the ruling camp and the opposition parties, rather than insisting on his own position alone.

In response, the LDP's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution released draft provisions for changes to four points of the law this March so that the document could be used for debate between the ruling and opposition parties. In recent speeches while touring local regions, Prime Minister Abe pointed out that only 20 percent of constitutional scholars assert that the SDF is constitutional. "But is it OK to leave this situation unaddressed?" questioned Abe, trying to leave the impression that he is simply trying to recognize the existence of the SDF in the Constitution.

However, the LDP draft of a new paragraph of Article 9 states that the existing two paragraphs "do not prevent necessary measures of self-defense," leaving room for the full use of the right to collective self-defense. This position is actually much closer to Ishiba's when compared to Abe's earlier explanation last May.

Meanwhile, the 2012 LDP draft of constitutional revisions deleted Paragraph 2 of Article 9 completely, and made a clear reference to the maintenance of a "national defense force." In contrast, the prime minister's idea of writing the SDF's existence into the law has not been officially approved by the party. Therefore, the Ishiba camp insists that his side has more legitimacy over this issue within the LDP.

In response, Abe followers attacked Ishiba for being too "idealistic" in proposing constitutional revision that has little chance of succeeding. At a meeting of Abe's intraparty faction in early August, a member argued that removing Article 9's second paragraph "may be logically consistent, but has little likelihood of getting support from the opposition or the public, and this should be understood by a wider audience inside the party." The Abe camp has insisted that their "realistic" proposal of making reference to the SDF in the Constitution is closer to an agreement made with the opposition.

Regarding the timing of revising Article 9, Abe seems more bent on doing so at an early date than Ishiba. Abe announced his intention to submit a party draft of constitutional revisions during the next extraordinary session of the Diet set to open this autumn. By making the declaration, the premier appeared to get back on track toward his goal of revision, a move that had been delayed by favoritism scandals involving school operators linked to him or his wife.

Similar calls for faster changes to the law have emerged from the LDP faction led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who supports the prime minister. They say that a national referendum to revise the Constitution should be held before the next House of Councillors election in summer 2019 -- a position reflecting concerns that the pro-change lawmakers may lose the two-thirds majority in the upper house that is necessary to propose revision to the Constitution.

But other parties are not likely to support the four-point revision plan proposed by the ruling party, which are for writing the SDF into the supreme law, giving the government more authority in emergency situations, removing merged electoral districts in the upper house and making higher education free of charge. In addition, the rivalry between the ruling and the opposition camps is expected to intensify as the upper house race approaches. Some LDP insiders say conducting a referendum before the election "would be difficult." Some observers see Abe's announcement as a mere sales pitch to his conservative base in order to solidify support for the presidential election.

Ishiba, in the meantime, realizes that his proposal to delete paragraph 2 of Article 9 faces the difficult obstacle of attaining agreement between opposing political camps. This realization has made him emphasize his program of revitalizing local communities on the election campaign trail, and he cautiously stated that he will "carefully discuss (the revision issue) with other parties."

This stance is designed to cash in on the criticism leveled against Abe for being "too strong" and to create an impression that the prime minister is moving too fast toward constitutional revision. But this approach is also not reflecting well on Ishiba, as he is instead seen as not being serious about the issue.

(Japanese original by Akira Murao, Political News Department)

(This is Part 3 of a series.)

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