National / Politics

As Diet opens, emboldened Abe sets sights on constitutional revision

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s resounding victory in July’s Upper House election, all eyes are now on just how serious he is about pursuing his longtime goal of amending the pacifist Constitution.

One way to gauge his enthusiasm is whether his Liberal Democratic Party will resume long-stalled debates at a constitutional committee of the Diet during its extraordinary session starting Monday.

Known as the Commission on the Constitution, the Diet entity was set up in 2007 with the aim of discussing a rewrite of the decades-old supreme law. It largely disappeared over the past year, however, with the LDP steering clear of the politically explosive topic of constitutional revision ahead of the July poll.

But emboldened by the landslide victory in that election that has handed him the unprecedented power to call a national referendum on constitutional change, Abe may now take a first step toward this goal by rebooting the committee during the upcoming Diet session.

“Revising the Constitution is my party’s long-held goal,” Abe told a news conference several weeks after the election. “It’s a matter of fact that I, as head of the LDP, will make an all-out effort to realize that.”

But despite its overwhelming post-election strength, chances appear slim that the Abe-led LDP will steamroll its way through debates at the committee.

Recent reports suggest the party will likely opt for a conciliatory approach in its discussion with opposition parties, possibly shelving a batch of hard-core amendment proposals it advocated in its 2012 draft constitution.

Earlier this month, Hakubun Shimomura, acting secretary-general of the LDP, reportedly asked Eisuke Mori, chairman of the party’s task force promoting constitutional revision, to eschew mention of the 2012 draft in dialogue with the opposition.

The LDP constitution, which proposes upgrading the Self-Defense Forces into a full-fledged military and reinstating the Emperor as “head of state” from the current “symbol” of the public, has often been criticized as evocative of Japan’s wartime militarism, raising hackles among the opposition.

Putting a freeze on the draft, then, would be a sign that the LDP prioritizes winning support from the opposition side on less controversial amendments, including the establishment of a clause that allows the Cabinet to declare a state of emergency in the event of any calamity.

Although Abe can technically call a national referendum without support from the opposition, such a heavy-handed move could antagonize the public and ultimately hurt his chances of winning such a vote.

Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the LDP, told reporters earlier this month that he would “consider carefully” what stance his party adopts on the draft, while Renho, newly elected president of the main opposition Democratic Party, voiced dismay at some of its most hawkish proposals. She, however, said she is willing to join debates at the committee should it be convened.

Another highlight of the upcoming Diet session is whether the ruling coalition will be able to pass a bill to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement with the U.S. and other Pacific Rim economies. Efforts to pass the bill failed earlier this year, after the opposition bloc boycotted deliberations over what it blasted as the government’s refusal to release records of behind-the-scene negotiations leading up to the pact’s broad agreement last October.

Such is Abe’s passion for TPP ratification that the government — in a bid to minimize backlash from the opposition and pre-empt a parliamentary standstill — has decided to postpone the submission of a controversial bill to criminalize conspiracy.

Even so, Abe faces a bumpy road ahead.

For one thing, U.S. presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both opposed to the multinational deal.

In his meeting last week with Clinton in New York, Abe reiterated the importance of the pact, which he called a “pillar” of the U.S. policy rebalance to Asia, but failed to elicit agreement from the Clinton side, according to reports.

Opposition parties, too, are in no mood to let Abe have his way.

“With the two U.S. presidential nominees pretty unequivocally opposed to the deal, I don’t think Japan should hasten its discussion,” Renho of the DP told reporters Friday.

The Japanese Communist Party, too, has excoriated the deal, arguing in Akahata, the party’s daily newspaper, that it would only benefit corporate behemoths and aggravate income disparity levels.

Among other bills that may be deliberated is a package of amendments intended to outlaw dual citizenship in Japan.

Osaka-based Nippon Ishin no Kai, formerly known as Osaka Ishin no Kai, is scrambling to submit those proposals to the extraordinary Diet session to prevent a recurrence of recent lapses like the one committed by Renho, who, despite her earlier denials, was found to be in possession of both Taiwanese and Japanese nationalities.

Noting Japan currently does not ban its lawmakers and Cabinet ministers from holding foreign nationality, Nobuyuki Baba, secretary-general of the Osaka-based party, questioned such “legal shortcomings.”

“It doesn’t feel right that people with dual citizenship are allowed to become the top commander of the SDF or work for the Defense Ministry as public servants,” Baba told a news conference on Sept. 14.

“Are they really suited to take up these jobs on behalf of Japan?”

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