Three years since its Diet passage, the national referendum law takes effect Tuesday, paving the way for amending the Constitution.
The political situation has undergone drastic change since 2007, when then hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party created the bill to establish procedures for a national referendum to revise the nation’s charter.
Since then the LDP has been ousted from power, the pacifist Social Democratic Party — which adamantly opposes revising the Constitution — is now a part of the ruling coalition, and the amendment push has taken a back seat to other pressing issues.
Following are some questions and answers about the referendum law and the potential changes it could bring to the Constitution:
What are the procedures for revising the Constitution?
The Constitution, drafted in 1947 during the Allied Occupation, stipulates that a revision must be backed by two-thirds of both Diet chambers before going to a national referendum.
But specifics on such a referendum were never settled until 2007, when Abe laid out the rules and wrote up the bill.
When the referendum law takes effect Tuesday, all of the elements needed to change the Constitution, which has never been done, will basically be in place.
How are proposals for revising the Constitution made?
Any proposal must be in the form of a bill that has the support of more than 100 Lower House lawmakers or 50 Upper House lawmakers. Once the bill clears the Diet with at least a two-thirds majority in both chambers, the public has the final say.
The referendum bill allows all citizens aged 18 and over to vote, and balloting must take place between 60 and 180 days after the bill is approved by the Diet. Constitutional amendments can only be made if a majority of voters agree to them.
Is there still a movement to revise the Constitution?
None that is noticeable. Conservative parties, in particular the LDP, have long insisted Japan needs a Constitution drafted by its own people. Some go as far as to call for the war-renouncing Article 9 to be diluted to give Tokyo greater diplomatic leverage.
But while the LDP is working on various bills, including those to add provisions to the Constitution requiring that the government reduce its swelling debt, it is unlikely to take on Article 9 anytime soon.
Does the current ruling bloc have any amendment plans?
The Democratic Party of Japan is a mixed bag of conservatives and liberals, making it highly unlikely that a quick revision of the Constitution — especially Article 9 — will take place under a DPJ government.
The SDP’s partnership in the coalition also makes this notion problematic.
Asked about the current lack of debate on possible revisions, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama hinted Friday the issue is not high on the administration’s to-do list.
“Debates on the Constitution should take place,” Hatoyama said, adding that the public, as well as the government, face other pressing issues that directly influence society, including reviving the economy and curbing the high unemployment rate.
Does a revision push appear likely anytime soon?
All signs indicate the referendum law won’t bring quick changes.
For starters, the constitutional research panels in both Diet chambers, which would have to deliberate any bills to rewrite the Constitution, have yet to assemble despite being formally set up in 2007.
Hatoyama acknowledged “progress is sluggish” regarding the panels, but SDP chief Mizuho Fukushima has made it clear she will oppose any moves looking to get the Constitution revision ball rolling.
“I will not allow the Diet chambers constitutional research panels (‘kenpo shinsakai’) to get under way,” Fukushima said during a rally May 3 against any amendments.
The referendum law itself is only on a trial basis at present. Although the law stipulates that all Japanese aged 18 and over are eligible to vote in it, the current legal minimum voting age is 20. The referendum law sets the minimum voting age at 20 instead of 18 until the voting age is changed.
Debate to lower the age has led to complex discussions at the Justice Ministry, because such a change would influence a variety of areas, including the legal age to drink and smoke.
On top of such obstacles, securing a two-thirds majority in both the Lower and Upper houses to pass a bill would require a bipartisan effort. Thus the LDP would have to join forces with the DPJ.
What will be the government’s next move?
Debate over the constitutional research panels “is something that is to be held within the Diet,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said last week.
So far the Hatoyama administration has indicated it will take a wait-and-see approach.
Hirano said the administration will work to gain public’s acceptance of the matter but reiterated that it intends to watch developments in the Diet instead of leading the discussions.
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