Reference | FYI

BATTLE TO REVISE CONSTITUTION

Abe's constitutional revision hopes ride on July election, right-leaning opposition cooperation

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Japan’s postwar pacifism will face a critical challenge this year that could drastically change the course of this country forever: the July Upper House election.

Right-leaning parties, most notably the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will try to capture more than two-thirds of the 242-seat chamber in the election, and thus have the seats required to initiate a national referendum to revise the war-renouncing Constitution.

But which parties currently advocate constitutional revision? And how many seats are those parties likely to win in the election?

The following are questions and answers on the numbers in the election and the prospects for the political battle over the Constitution.

Why is the Upper House election regarded as critical to the fate of the Constitution?

Article 96 of the Constitution states that it can only be amended through a national referendum that is to be initiated by the Diet with support of two-thirds or more of all members of both the Lower and Upper houses.

Abe’s ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito now holds more than two-thirds of the 475-seat Lower House but doesn’t boast the same majority in the 242-seat Upper House.

Abe, who is still personally popular with voters thanks to his economic policies, is the first-ever prime minister to openly express a willingness to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Believing now is a golden opportunity, right-leaning politicians and activists have been campaigning to help the LDP win as many seats as possible in the Upper House election to gain the political momentum for constitutional change.

What chance does the ruling coalition have to win more than two-thirds of the 242-seat Upper House outright?

Many observers believe the chances are slim now based on the current support rate for Abe’s Cabinet and the LDP in media polls.

But together with other opposition forces that support revising Article 9, the coalition might altogether win more than two-thirds of the chamber, they said.

Every three years, half of the 242 Upper House seats are contested in a summer election. Currently, the LDP holds 115 seats and Komeito 20, which adds up to 135 seats, including that of Upper House President and LDP member Masaaki Yamazaki. Of those, 76 LDP and Komeito members are not facing re-election in the summer poll.

This means the LDP-Komeito coalition needs to win 86 seats to occupy more than two-thirds — or 162 seats or more — of the chamber.

This hurdle seems to be rather high when compared with the results of the 2013 Upper House poll. Back then, the LDP-Komeito coalition enjoyed a victory by winning 76 seats in total. At that time, the support rate for Abe’s Cabinet stood at 57 percent and that of the LDP was 42.4 percent, according to a poll conducted by NHK shortly before the election.

The latest NHK poll in December showed the support rate for Abe’s Cabinet stood at 46 percent in December, and that for the LDP was 37.5 percent. This may be why Abe is desperately trying to focus on economic issues to keep voters happy ahead of the election, while maintaining a low-profile on other contentious issues that could dent his popularity.

Will any opposition parties cooperate with the LDP on the Constitution revision?

How those parties fare in the July poll may be key to whether they can help Abe accomplish his referendum goal.

In the Upper House there are three minor parties willing to revise some articles of the Constitution, possibly including Article 9.

They are Osaka Ishin no Kai, which now has seven Upper House members; Nippon wo Genki ni Suru Kai (The Assembly to Energize Japan ) with six and Nihon no Kokoro wo Taisetsu ni suru To (Party for Japanese Kokoro) with four, making up 17 seats altogether.

“If you add those parties (to the ruling bloc), (the pro-revision) forces could occupy more than two-thirds in total, which would open the way for constitutional revision,” said Koji Nakakita, professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

Will revising Article 9 be a focal issue in the July poll campaigns?

This remains to be seen, as the situation is a complex one.

To revise the Constitution, it is necessary to gain a majority of all votes cast for the national referendum, but various polls have suggested most voters oppose changing the charter.

A poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun taken in March suggested 60 percent of respondents want Article 9 left as is, while only 35 percent said it should be revised. This ratio has not changed significantly in the past decade.

Pro-revision lawmakers say they will first advocate revising other articles in a bid to remove the psychological barrier for amending the 69-year-old Constitution, which has remained intact since its promulgation in November 1946.

When it comes to revising the Constitution, rather than trying to revise Article 9, LDP lawmakers have suggested the party first propose creating a new article to give the prime minister extraordinary powers in emergencies.

Komeito is likely to agree to that revision, although the party is reluctant to support the LDP’s drive to rewrite Article 9.

The Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties, however, would oppose any revision of the Constitution, believing it could be a Trojan horse to open the way for revising Article 9.