National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Abe's goal of constitutional reform faces many challenges

by Mizuho Aoki and Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writers

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed confident on Dec. 24 when he relaunched his Cabinet following the landslide victory of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the Dec. 14 Lower House election.

Abe, with an apparently stronger grip on power, boasted that his administration “garnered the great power of the confidence of the people.”

The LDP won 291 of the 475-seat chamber and Abe is now in a position to extend his tenure by as much as four years. But key questions arise for 2015 : Will Abe’s nationalistic stripes exert a greater influence over his decisions? And will he pursue his long-held quest to amend the pacifist Constitution?

Things are not that simple, observers say. This will be a tough year for the Abe administration, as the calendar is full of policy goals that are unpopular with voters, they said.

“Abe has no choice but to refrain” from pushing his nationalistic agenda, said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a Toyo University professor and former political editor at the Asahi Shimbun.

The more he pursues that agenda, including trying to amend the Constitution, the more his public support rate will drop, Yakushiji predicted.

Aside from constitutional issues, Abe’s government faces a number of difficult tasks this year.

They include his hoped-for restart of some of the dozens of commercial nuclear reactors that remain shut down in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns. The first to go back online will probably be in Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture.

Abe also plans to introduce bills during the next ordinary Diet session later this month that are designed to expand the overseas activities of the Self-Defense Forces, in line with the administration’s controversial decision in July to reinterpret the charter to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.

Negotiations will also continue in 2015 on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which faces strong opposition from Japan’s agriculture sector. Local elections are to be held nationwide in April. And Abe will run again for the LDP presidency this fall.

“I wonder how much leeway he will have to pursue his pet goals,” including the constitutional revision, Yakushiji said.

Abe and the LDP have long sought to amend the Constitution, especially war-renouncing Article 9, to make it more “appropriate for the 21st century.”

An LDP draft released in 2012 would rename the Self-Defense Forces to the more military-sounding National Defense Force (Kokubo-Gun), broaden its rules of engagement, and clearly stipulate that Japan’s right to defend itself doesn’t contradict Article 9. Critics said such changes would greatly expand the scope of overseas SDF missions.

However, experts said the results of the Dec. 14 snap election, which saw low voter turnout, do not necessarily indicate the people are strongly behind the Abe government.

Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, said that if the struggling economy were to tank, Abe’s support rate could plunge.

“We can see that what the Abe administration really wants to work on after the election victory is security policy,” Nonaka said.

“But if the economy goes awry, that (goal of revising the Constitution) will come to nothing. For that reason, he will definitely prioritize his economic agenda,” Nonaka said.

What direction the economy takes and the fate of “Abenomics” — the combination of radical monetary easing, more fiscal spending and structural reforms — are difficult to predict as they can be greatly strained by any number of global financial events, experts said.

Even if everything goes well and Japan can pull itself out of 15 years of deflation, revising the Constitution will still be a tall order, as media polls indicate only a minority of voters support the idea.

Annual opinion polls carried out by the Yomiuri Shimbun found the public’s approval rate for revising Article 9 fell to 30 percent in 2014 from 44.4 percent in 2004, while the percentage of those who do not wish to change the charter increased to 60 percent in 2014, compared with 46.7 percent in 2004.

Amending the Constitution would initially require a two-thirds majority vote in favor in both the Lower and Upper houses. Then a majority of voters would have to back the move in a national referendum.

Abe is undoubtedly well aware that a majority of voters have consistently opposed any revision to Article 9 over the past 15 years.

“First we need to win two-thirds of the Lower and Upper houses, and then win over more than half of the voters in a national referendum. This is the most crucial stage indeed,” Abe told a news conference on Dec. 24.

“First I’d like to make efforts to deepen the people’s awareness,” he said.

Professor Yakushiji of Toyo University said he believes Abe won’t press for a national referendum as long as most voters want Article 9 left untouched, adding that there is no point for him to devote his energy to that pursuit at present.

In addition, Yakushiji pointed out that the July reinterpretation of the Constitution should have already given Abe a sense of historic achievement.

“He will go down in history as the prime minister who reinterpreted the Constitution,” Yakushiji said, adding it should have already satisfied some of Abe’s goals to change Japan’s postwar security policy.

In late January, the LDP-Komeito ruling bloc is slated to coordinate policies on the contents of bills that would expand the scope of the SDF, in accordance with the agreement they reached in July to allow the limited use of the right to collective self-defense.

The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, meanwhile hopes that in 2015 it can restore the public trust it lost in the three years and three months it was in control of the government between 2009 and 2012.

The party is scheduled to hold its presidential election on Jan. 18 to replace Banri Kaieda, who lost his lower chamber seat in the December election.

“The DPJ must (restore) its identity, such as how it would run the government the next time,” Yakushiji said. The party must think about “what the DPJ is, what its policies are, and how it differs from the LDP.”

The DPJ also needs to find and nurture prospective candidates for general elections to fill all the 295 single-seat constituencies in the next general poll, he said.

“There are people in the party still talking about a silly realignment of other opposition parties,” Yakushiji said. “What policies do they have in common?

“A political party means they have a common foundation, such as the same national ideal, and also have support organizations across the country to a certain extent,” he said.

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