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PM Abe tones down calls for constitutional revisions as election draws near

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in a plenary session of the House of Representatives on Jan. 30, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has toned down his calls in the Diet for constitutional revisions, his long-cherished goal, as the summer 2019 House of Councillors election is drawing near.

"I hope that discussions at each political party will be deepened and public understanding will be advanced," the prime minister told a House of Representatives plenary session on Jan. 31, stopping short of a heated pitch on changing the supreme law.

Abe apparently chose to avoid provoking opposition parties as moves to amend the war-renouncing Constitution have lost momentum prior to the election.

The prospects for gaining support for constitutional revisions have become murky as the opposition Democratic Party for the People (DPFP), which the premier intended to count on to amend the supreme law, is seeking to merge with the Liberal Party. Under such circumstances, Prime Minister Abe has been unable to draw up a strategy for changing the Constitution.

In his policy speech at the outset of an extraordinary Diet session last autumn, Abe urged each political party to present their specific plans for a new Constitution. However, in his policy speech at the beginning of the current Diet session on Jan. 28, he only said, "I expect that each party's discussions on the matter will be deepened."

Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the junior ruling coalition partner Komeito, welcomed Abe's comments on the issue saying the prime minister "made restrained remarks."

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) aimed to present its draft of a new Constitution at the commissions on the Constitution in both chambers of the Diet during the extraordinary session last autumn, but ended up abandoning the plan.

In an attempt to create an environment for submitting its draft, the LDP will aim to revise the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan during the current session.

However, the chances that the LDP can present its draft of a new Constitution remain unclear as confrontations between ruling and opposition parties are expected to intensify prior to nationwide local elections in spring and the upper house poll.

Moves within the LDP to amend the supreme law have not gained momentum, either.

Hakubun Shimomura, chairman of the LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution, expressed enthusiasm about galvanizing public opinion on the issue. "If LDP candidates discuss constitutional revisions during the campaign for nationwide local elections, it will raise the public's hopes for such an amendment," he said.

However, Shimomura added, "I often hear that constitutional discussions won't have any positive effects (for candidates) on nationwide local elections."

In the past, some aides to the prime minister expressed hope that the DPFP will cooperate with the LDP on the issue because the opposition party has some pro-change legislators. Now the ruling party is wary of the DPFP, which has formed a parliamentary alliance with the Liberal Party led by heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa with the ultimate goal of merging into a single entity. "Mr. Ozawa will confront the LDP," said a senior legislator with the governing party.

"I wonder why Mr. (DPFP leader Yuichiro) Tamaki chose to join hands with Mr. Ozawa. He will only end up being manipulated by Ozawa," Prime Minister Abe was quoted as telling leading ruling bloc members of the lower house Budget Committee during a dinner meeting at the prime minister's office on Jan. 28.

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

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