The Islamic State hostage crisis that erupted on Jan. 20 has brought Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-held goal of revising the Constitution back into sharp focus.
Many observers suspect that Abe sees the events of the past two weeks as an opportunity to push ahead with his ambition to drastically amend the pacifist Constitution for the first time since the war, although the government denies it.
At the prime minister’s office on Wednesday, Abe met with Hajime Funada, head of the department within the Liberal Democratic Party that is pushing for constitutional revision.
Funada told reporters afterward that they discussed the timing of a possible referendum on revising the Constitution. Funada said Abe agreed with his recommendation and that a referendum, if one were held, should come after the Upper House election in summer 2016.
“That’s what everybody would agree on,” Funada reportedly quoted Abe as saying.
It’s the first time Abe is believed to have mentioned the specific timing for a potential national referendum on revising the Constitution.
On Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, played down the reports.
“It seems that the prime minister and Funada have agreed that it takes time to develop (public) debate. (Abe) didn’t express specific timing for revisions,” Suga said at a news conference.
All Abe meant to say was that “public discussion should pick up steam” before any formal proposal is made, Suga said.
During the meeting, Funada reportedly proposed revising the Constitution in stages. Under that scenario, the first wave might include measures on environmental rights and one giving the prime minister supreme power in the event of an emergency, news reports have said.
However, Suga denied Abe had proposed revising any specific articles during his meeting with Funada. Suga did say, however, that he believes the first articles up for revision should include those articulating the people’s right to protect the environment, rather than war-renouncing Article 9.
To hold a national referendum on revising the Constitution, a two-thirds of the members in both chambers of the Diet must vote in favor of it. For the amendment itself to take place, more than 50 percent of the public must vote for it in another poll.
The LDP and Komeito, the two partners in the ruling coalition, hold more than two-thirds of the 475-seat Lower House. Lay Buddhist-backed Komeito is likely to oppose revising Article 9, although it might agree to add provisions on environmental rights.
Meanwhile, Katsuya Okada, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, has declared publicly that he will not support constitutional revision as long as Abe is in power. This would make it difficult for the LDP to propose such revisions in the Diet.
The LDP’s performance in the 2016 Upper House election is therefore likely to determine Abe’s prospects for bringing about a constitutional referendum.
Opinion polls show that the majority of voters oppose changing Article 9.