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Abe still striving for constitutional reform as he looks to keep opposition in check

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in a news conference on July 22, 2019, the day after the House of Councillors election, at the Liberal Democratic Party's headquarters. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- The day after the July 21 House of Councillors election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed a renewed desire to press forward with amendment of Japan's Constitution.

"We should at least debate amendment of the Constitution. This is the people's decision. I would like the opposition parties to squarely accept the people's wishes," Abe said at a news conference at the party's headquarters on the evening of July 22.

Abe's request to opposition parties came after forces in favor of revising the supreme law failed to retain a two-thirds majority in the upper house -- the threshold required to initiate constitutional revision.

Abe is poised to reshuffle his Cabinet and the LDP leadership to boost centripetal force within the party and the administration as early as September. At the same time, he seeks to keep the opposition in check with hints that he could dissolve the House of Representatives. But with such a move, he could risk losing the two-thirds majority that forces in favor of revising the Constitution still hold in the lower house. Although he maintains a solid base of political support following the July 21 election, it will not be easy for him to steer in his desired direction.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that Abe heads, its junior coalition partner Komeito, and the conservative opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) support constitutional amendment, but forces including these parties failed to win a two-thirds majority in the upper house election. This is why Abe is seeking cooperation from other opposition parties including the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP). Hoping to launch into deliberations on constitutional amendment in an extraordinary Diet session from this autumn, Abe is eyeing realignment of forces in favor of changing the Constitution. But it is unclear whether the prime minister's scenario will play out as he intends.

"The forces favoring constitutional amendment have yet to be determined," he emphasized, adding, "There are newly formed political parties and independent Diet members. And there are many people within the DPFP who think that we should debate amendment of the Constitution. It would be good if debate is actively held with everyone like that."

Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the DPFP, told reporters on July 22, "We have to properly proceed with debate." But he expressed opposition to adding a clause referring to Japan's Self-Defense Forces to the supreme law, as Abe has sought to do. Article 9 of Japan's Constitution states that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

Furthermore, Yuiko Edano, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), has expressed firm opposition to constitutional revision.

"Forces that will not allow the Constitution to be changed for the worse have surpassed the 1/3 mark in the Diet, so the people's will has become clear. There is no need to proceed with debate," he said.

Even some within the ruling coalition have expressed reservations about Abe's stance.

"It's a little pushy to take the results (of the upper house election) as a go-ahead to debate constitutional revision," Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi commented in a television program on July 22.

Abe has not denied the possibility of dissolving the lower house during the remainder of his term, saying, "I would like to focus on carrying out what we promised in the election to do, point by point, without ruling out any options." One senior LDP official commented, "If discussion on amending the Constitution doesn't move forward, then the atmosphere will move toward dissolving the lower house."

The term of lower house members will run until October 2021. If Abe sees out his term without dissolving the lower house, his successor would have to disband the chamber within one month after taking the helm of the LDP. But if Abe dissolved the lower house before the end of his term and the party acquired a certain number of seats in the chamber, the options for his successor in running the administration would increase, as would expectations that Abe could seek a fourth term in the party presidency himself.

Yet dissolution of the lower house is a double-edged sword. During the previous House of Representatives election in 2017, forces in favor of amending the Constitution won over two-thirds of the seats in the chamber, but this was partly due to opposition party candidates competing against each other. If opposition parties were to alter their strategy and jointly back fewer candidates, then they may be able to win more Diet seats and prevent the pro-constitutional amendment forces from retaining a two-thirds majority in the lower house. This would significantly slow down debate on constitutional amendment in the Diet.

(Japanese original by Nozomu Takeuchi, Kazuhiko Hori, Kei Sato and Masahiro Tateno, Political News Department)

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