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Leaders' debate reveals fissures among governing, opposition forces on Japan Constitution

The leaders of seven main political parties are seen during a debate held at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on July 3, 2019. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

TOKYO -- The party leaders' debate the day before campaigning for the July 21 House of Councillors election kicked off highlighted differences over constitutional revision within the ruling coalition as well as in the opposition camp.

The July 3 debate among seven party chiefs included Prime Minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President Shinzo Abe and opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) chief Yukio Edano, and was held at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward.

A focal point in the race is whether pro-constitutional amendment forces, including the ruling bloc, conservative opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and others will retain two-thirds of seats in the upper house.

Under Article 96 of the Constitution, constitutional revisions can be initiated through a concurring vote of two-thirds of all members of each Diet chamber before being put to a national referendum. Those in favor of constitutional reform currently occupy two-thirds of seats in both chambers.

In the debate, Prime Minister Abe emphasized that the LDP will continue efforts to form a consensus on constitutional revisions between ruling and opposition parties rather than aiming for a two-third majority on its own.

"We've never said our party will secure two-thirds. Instead, we'd rather continue efforts to gain consent from two-thirds of legislators from both ruling and opposition blocs," Abe said.

While acknowledging that the LDP and Nippon Ishin also broadly share policies on free education, the prime minister noted, "Some members of the (key opposition) Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) are in favor of constitutional revisions. We'll try to form a consensus with these people."

For political forces in favor of constitutional reform to maintain two-thirds of all seats in the upper house, they need to secure at least 85 out of 124 seats up for grabs on July 21. That is a high hurdle for the LDP, its junior coalition partner Komeito, and Nippon Ishin.

In response to the prime minister's statements in the debate, Nippon Ishin leader Ichiro Matsui expressed enthusiasm about constitutional discussions.

"We'll squarely discuss the LDP's proposal on (war-renouncing) Article 9. We'd like to have fair debate on the issue alongside our proposals for making education free and decentralization of power," said Matsui, mayor of Japan's second largest city Osaka.

DPFP leader Yuichiro Tamaki did not mention the prime minister's comment suggesting enthusiasm for partnering with pro-constitutional reform members of the DPFP, saying only, "We take the position that we should thoroughly discuss the Constitution."

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi remains passive about constitutional debate as his party is particularly cautious about changing Article 9, which renounces war and bans Japan from possessing any "war potential."

"Constitutional reform isn't immediately necessary for the current administration's work," he said. Emphasizing that discussions on the issue are still insufficient, Yamaguchi did not even mention the need to form a consensus on constitutional revisions.

There are also subtle differences between political forces that are outright opposed to or cautious about constitutional amendment.

Japanese Communist Party Chairman Kazuo Shii voiced opposition to even holding discussions at the commissions on the Constitution at both chambers of the legislature. He further stressed that the opposition camp is unified in fighting against revising Article 9 under the Abe administration.

Nippon Ishin's Matsui criticized Shii and CDP leader Edano for opposing constitutional reform under the Abe administration.

"It's politicians' duty to hold discussions whoever is the prime minister. Mr. Shii and Mr. Edano, who refuse to do so, are extremely irresponsible," Matsui said.

Edano suggested that the opposition camp is not necessarily unified in its refusal to hold constitutional debate under the Abe government.

"I've never made any statement to the effect that we won't have (debate) under Prime Minister Abe," Edano said. "Unless the issue of consistency between the Constitution and unconstitutional security legislation is addressed, we can't hold fair discussions."

Opposition parties against constitutional change need to secure at least 40 of the upper house seats up for grabs to block pro-revision political forces from maintaining a two-thirds majority. Under the circumstances, subtle differences between opposition parties over the issue could affect their election campaign strategies.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Kaite, Political News Department)

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