TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is stepping up his push for constitutional revision amid speculation that he will dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap general election to coincide with this summer's House of Councillors poll.
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The move will inevitably elevate constitutional amendment as a campaign focal point, distracting from a possible delay in the consumption tax hike planned for this October. However, dissolving the lower house would also put the two-thirds majority now enjoyed by pro-amendment forces -- the ratio needed to initiate revision to the supreme law -- at risk.
"We will show in the House of Councillors election whether our party is one that will debate the Constitution or not," Prime Minister Abe told a May 17 gathering of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s prefectural chapter policy chiefs, held at a hotel near the Diet building.
That morning, Abe had met Hakubun Shimomura, a close aide and head of the LDP's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution, for about 30 minutes at the prime minister's office. Shimomura had stated on May 16, "There are calls within the LDP that we should move ahead with a double (upper and lower house) election and make constitutional revision a topic of contention."
The pair's meeting was apparently aimed at giving the public the impression that Abe approved of Shimomura's comment.
The prevailing wisdom in the ruling and opposition camps had been that the largest campaign issue would be whether to delay the sales tax rise from the current 8% to 10%. However, that possibility dwindled with the May 20 Cabinet Office announcement of January-March GDP figures that showed Japan's economy had grown for the second consecutive quarter.
"It would be groundless to say the country is facing an economic crisis on par with the global financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers (in 2008)," a senior LDP official said, referring to Prime Minister Abe's previously stated yardstick for delaying the tax hike.
The LDP scored a landslide victory in the 2013 upper house race, garnering 65 of the 121 seats up for grabs. When combined with the seats it won in the 2016 upper house poll, the LDP managed to secure a two-thirds threshold together with its coalition partner Komeito and the conservative opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), which also favors constitutional change.
In the upcoming upper house poll, the LDP will need to curb their losses to maintain the pro-revision supermajority. In this context, launching a double election would permit campaign synergy between the party's candidates for both chambers of the Diet, hopefully limiting damage to the revisionist bloc in the upper house, according to an LDP heavyweight.
The LDP also swept to victory in the 2017 lower house election, securing a two-thirds majority in that chamber together with other pro-amendment forces. However, the LDP cannot rule out the possibility of losing lower house seats in the next general election. One source close to the party estimated the LDP would drop 20 to 30 seats.
If the LDP is to relinquish its seats in the lower house for the sake of boosting its upper house campaign, it may have to recast its constitutional reform strategy.
(Japanese original by Katsuya Takahashi and Nozomu Takeuchi, Political News Department)