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Japan's LDP features ex-PM Abe in constitutional reform drive, risking opposition backlash

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses a regional meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party themed on early realization of constitutional revision, in the city of Yamaguchi on April 3, 2022. (Mainichi/Itsuo Tokubo)

YAMAGUCHI -- Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for early amendment to the Constitution of Japan during a speech here on April 3, including specifying the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in its Article 9 that renounces war and bans Japan from maintaining any war potential.

    Abe's speech was part of nationwide activities that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been promoting in a bid to boost momentum for constitutional revision. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who heads the LDP, and other party leaders are set to continue featuring Abe in constitutional reform debate, considering his strong appeal among conservative voters, ahead of the House of Councillors election slated for this summer.

    However, Abe being at the front line of constitutional debate may draw a strong backlash from opposition parties, possibly stalling deliberations in the Diet.

    During his weekend speech in the city of Yamaguchi in western Japan, Abe stated, "Up until now, the public never had the chance to express their intention on the Constitution, whether they are for or against it. It's absolutely strange."

    Abe continued, with his fist clenched time and again, "It's about time we changed the Constitution with an eye to a new era," drawing a round of applause from more than 1,000 people in the audience filling the venue.

    The LDP reorganized its Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution in November 2021 into the Headquarters for the Realization of Revision of the Constitution as part of efforts to accelerate discussion on constitutional reform. If the Kishida administration is to fare well in the upcoming upper house poll, the administration is expected to enter a "stable phase" where it can tackle key issues in the next three years or so as long as the House of Representatives is not dissolved for a general election, and promotion of constitutional reform debate will be the pillar of the agenda in that period.

    Under Prime Minister Kishida's policy to promote constitutional revision debate while keeping Diet discussions and public understanding as two wheels of a cart, the LDP is planning to assist the party's prefectural chapters across the nation in holding meetings over the issue by May. Abe is tapped as one of the key lecturers in this drive.

    As the LDP's four-point constitutional reform proposal, including writing the SDF into the supreme law, was compiled under the Abe administration, Abe fluently recited the proposal during his April 3 speech. A mid-ranking LDP legislator close to Abe noted a positive response to the party's attempt to gather momentum for constitutional debate, saying, "The public is aware of the need to revise the Constitution due to the crisis in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic."

    For Kishida, the Constitution issue is a critical tool in keeping the LDP's conservative wing and pro-LDP conservative voters on his regime's side. Kishida's aides are constantly highlighting his stance toward revising the supreme law, with one saying, "The prime minister is talking about the Constitution every day," while another said, "He is aiming to achieve constitutional amendment and make it his political legacy."

    As the head of the LDP faction Kochikai, representative of the party's liberal wing, Kishida has heretofore been deemed as being "indifferent to and passive about constitutional revision." As Kishida cannot be said to hold a strong intraparty power base, he is apparently aiming to broaden support for his administration among the conservative wing by featuring Abe -- who remains enthusiastic about attaining his long-cherished goal of constitutional amendment -- at the front line of the drive.

    Yet it remains uncertain whether discussion on constitutional revision will proceed in the Diet in the future. While the Japan Innovation Party (Nippon Ishin) and the Democratic Party for the People are keeping in step with the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito in accelerating debate on the issue in the Diet's commissions on the Constitution, the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Japanese Communist Party remain negative toward advancing talks on constitutional changes.

    An LDP legislator said, "During the Abe administration, the CDP told us, 'We'll not tolerate constitutional revision at the hands of Mr. Abe.'" At the April 3 party rally, Abe told the audience, "It is desirable for the Diet to reach unanimous agreement, but that never happens." A mid-ranking LDP legislator warned, "Mr. Abe is a powerful figure, but there is also a strong backlash against such an individual," expressing concerns about the Diet debate possibly being stalled as a result of Abe being brought to the fore leading the opposition camp to harden their attitude.

    (Japanese original by Itsuo Tokubo, Political News Department)

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