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Prospects for PM Abe achieving cherished goal of amending Constitution uncertain

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech during the extraordinary Diet session, on Oct. 24, 2018. (Mainichi/Tatsuro Tamaki)

TOKYO -- The prospects for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe achieving his long-cherished goal of amending the postwar Constitution remain unclear although he urged both ruling and opposition parties in his policy speech in the Diet on Oct. 24 to speed up debate on the issue.

"As more than 70 years have passed since the Constitution was created, we should deepen discussions on the issue and fulfill our responsibility as Diet members together," he told the Diet at the outset of the extraordinary session that opened on Oct. 24.

Constitutional amendment is a theme indispensable for the prime minister, who is in his final three-year term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to maintain his influence over the government.

In a bid to speed up constitutional debate, Abe appointed conservative politicians -- former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo and Hakubun Shimomura, head of the LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution -- as ruling camp representatives in the lower chamber's Commission on the Constitution.

The LDP is aiming to ensure that a bill to revise the law on a referendum on constitutional revisions passes the Diet at an early date before submitting to the legislature the party's draft of revisions to the supreme law that include the stipulation on the existence of the Self-Defense Forces.

However, opposition parties are trying to block the move. "Regulations on television commercials (that call for supporting or opposing constitutional changes) must be incorporated in the bill," said Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People.

Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, is cautious about moving forward with constitutional revisions for fear that such a move could adversely affect the governing bloc's chance of winning the summer 2019 House of Councillors election.

Komeito deputy leader Kazuo Kitagawa called for cooperation between ruling and opposition camps in furthering discussions on the issue. "Let's carefully move ahead while respecting minority opinions," Kitagawa told a consultative meeting of senior ruling bloc members of the lower house's Commission on the Constitution on Oct. 24.

"It's intolerable that only outspoken LDP members' opinions are accepted. Komeito wouldn't follow such a move," a senior Komeito member warned.

Questions have been raised over whether Shimomura and others can function as intermediaries between ruling and opposition blocs in talks on constitutional reform.

Objections have been voiced even within the LDP to the prime minister's attempt to reform the supreme law.

In his policy speech, Prime Minister Abe said, "It's the Constitution that talks about the country's ideals."

However, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who was the sole rival for Abe in the Sept. 20 party leadership election, said, "It's not impossible to easily change the country's ideals."

Former Economic Planning Agency chief Hajime Funada, who will be relieved from the post of a director of the lower chamber's Commission on the Constitution, criticized the way the panel will be steered. He said that by appointing conservative members to the panel as representatives of the governing camp, the prime minister has "sent a message that hard-liners will manage the commission."

A conservative LDP legislator who is close to Abe pointed out that the fact that Ishiba won better-than-expected support from rank-and-file party members in the party presidential race has slowed down the move toward constitutional revisions.

The legislator said the prime minister "could have quickly pressed ahead with revisions if he had scored a landslide victory. However, he is taking a wait-and-see attitude because he was unable to do so."

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Tanaka and Akira Murao, Political News Department)

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