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Editorial: Japan referendum law needs refinement as new issues emerge

The House of Representatives' Commission on the Constitution met on Nov. 19 for the first time during the Diet's current session. Its focus for the time being will be revisions to the National Referendum Law, which stipulates procedures for amending the Constitution.

    The revision bill submitted two years ago was meant to allow train stations and commercial facilities to serve as polling places, and permit the flexible setting of hours for early voting. The bill was in line with the revised Public Offices Election Act, and opposition parties the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) both said they had no problem with its content.

    But then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's disregard for consensus-building among ruling and opposition parties, and his presupposition that constitutional revision would occur, fostered distrust from the CDP and other opposition parties. With insufficient time to deliberate it, the revision bill will likely be shelved again during the current Diet session.

    When the original National Referendum Law was passed, it deferred on decisions concerning issues such as regulations for TV commercials encouraging citizens to vote for or against constitutional revision, and what the lowest acceptable voting rate to guarantee legitimate results would be. Debate on the issues has not progressed since.

    The only restriction in place so far states that commercials advocating one position or another in a national referendum cannot be aired within 14 days of a vote. If organizations with financial muscle buy large quantities of ads for one position, there will be imbalances in the amount of information voters are exposed to. To deal with this problem, some kind of restriction will need to come under consideration.

    Additionally, with it now being 10 years since the legislation went into effect, new challenges have sprung up, too.

    The price of internet ads surpassed TV for the first time in history in 2019; how this form of messaging is treated has become another issue that must be discussed.

    In the national referendum that decided Britain's exit from the European Union, and in the United States presidential elections, social media ads based on big data flooded the internet, and fake news and other types of misinformation spread widely.

    These issues concern freedom of expression and the right to know; both of which are guaranteed by the Japanese Constitution. It is essential for there to be an environment in which voters can cast their ballots fairly and justly. Measures must be taken from the viewpoint of avoiding political division among the public.

    In the results for 2019's House of Councillors election, the seats occupied by the pro-constitutional revision bloc in the upper house dropped below the two-thirds necessary to initiate a referendum. Since the switch in prime ministers from Abe to Yoshihide Suga this September, there has been no realistic and specific timeline for constitutional revision to be proposed in the Diet. For this very reason, we think both the ruling and opposition parties can settle in and debate this issue thoroughly.

    The Commission on the Constitution is truest to itself when wide-ranging agreement is emphasized, and debate is conducted without interparty conflict or impact from the day's political state of affairs. It is time to rebuild a trusting relationship between the ruling and opposition parties, and go back to basics.

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