Much at stake in Upper House poll

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated he will put amending the Constitution on the campaign agenda for the Upper House election this summer. The triennial election, in which half the chamber’s seats are up for grabs, is seen as a watershed test for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its allies to secure a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet — a condition necessary to initiate a constitutional amendment that would then be the subject of a national referendum in a bid for majority approval.

Still, pro-amendment parties including the LDP and their members remain vague as to what specifically they seek to change in the Constitution, whose text has not once been altered since it was introduced 69 years ago. If, as Abe said in the year’s first news conference, they want to “deepen national discussions” about amending the Constitution, they should come forward on which part of the nation’s supreme law they want to change — and for what purposes. Otherwise, voters could end up vesting the powers to propose an amendment with political forces that vaguely repeat the need to amend the Constitution without going into specifics. Voters need to keep a close watch on what the parties and lawmakers have to say about this issue in the lead-up to the election.

What Abe said Monday as the 150-day regular Diet session kicked off is not particularly new. “We will call for amending the Constitution during the election campaign as we’ve done before, and through such calls I’d like to deepen public debate” on the issue. Leaders of his ruling coalition parties appeared to play down Abe’s words. LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki indicated he was negative about making it a campaign issue, saying that amending the Constitution would require building a consensus with a top opposition party. Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi reportedly said the ruling coalition has not yet come to the stage where it should ask voters’ judgment on specific amendments.

A constitutional amendment nevertheless looms as a campaign issue because the LDP, with the help of its potential allies on the issue, is perhaps its closest ever to securing the Diet majority needed to propose an amendment and put it to a national referendum. The LDP-Komeito alliance already has a two-thirds majority in the Lower House but lacks one in the Upper House. In the upcoming poll, likely to be held in July, the LDP has only to add seven seats to its pre-election strength to regain a single-party majority in the 242-seat upper chamber, which the party hasn’t had since 1989.

The LDP-Komeito coalition plus Osaka Ishin no Kai — a new party founded last year by former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, whom Abe apparently counts an ally in his quest to change the Constitution — combined have 81 Upper House seats not up for grabs this time, and they have only to win 81 of the 121 contested seats in the July election to reach the two-thirds majority of 162. That would not be too far out of reach, given that the LDP-Komeito coalition alone has 59 incumbents seeking re-election this summer.

Hashimoto — whose position as “legal and policy adviser” to the new party after retiring as Osaka mayor last month raises various possibilities about his future political activity — talks more straight. He said the Upper House election this summer offers a major opportunity for pro-amendment forces to win the two-thirds majority. He tweeted that Abe’s order last month for the LDP to compromise with Komeito over a lower consumption tax rate on food products was the prime minister’s tactic to secure the cooperation of the junior coalition ally, which is wary of changing the Constitution, when the amendment comes up on the agenda of his administration.

In terms of their Diet strength, Abe and his allies may be inching toward the centerpiece of what he used to advocate as a “departure from Japan’s postwar regime.” What’s far from clear is whether they have any consensus over the specifics of how the Constitution, drafted while the nation was ruled by the Allied Occupation after its World War II defeat, should be changed.

The LDP compiled a draft amendment — to rewrite large portions of the Constitution, including the war-renouncing Article 9 — in 2012 when it was out of power. When the LDP regained the reins of government, Abe proposed first amending Article 96 to lower the two-thirds majority hurdle for the Diet to be able to hold a national referendum on an amendment. But he gave up that idea and then, in a Cabinet decision in 2014, moved to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution to pave the way for Japan to engage in collective self-defense. There is a view that enactment of the security legislation, which implemented the Cabinet decision and significantly expanded the scope of Self-Defense Forces’ overseas missions, diminished the necessity for amending Article 9 to enable the nation to take on greater international security roles.

LDP leaders have indicated they will seek to amend the Constitution in stages — first proposing changes that could gain a broad consensus among parties and the people, such as giving the prime minister emergency powers in the event of major disasters or attacks, so that citizens would experience amending the supreme code, and then aim for amending what they really want to change, including Article 9.

But the Constitution should not be amended simply because political circumstances or the balance of power in the Diet makes it possible. It should be amended only when changes are truly necessary. Voters should be aware that a constitutional amendment may become politically possible depending on the outcome of the Upper House election this summer, but the proponents should first clarify what provisions of the Constitution they want to change and why.