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Emperor Akihito’s abdication may push back timing of constitutional revisions

JIJI, Kyodo

With the date for Emperor Akihito’s abdication effectively set as April 30, 2019, efforts led by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to amend the Constitution may be delayed.

The government and ruling bloc have looked at holding a national referendum on constitutional revisions on the same date as the triennial election for the Upper House in the summer of 2019.

A standoff on the issue between ruling and opposition parties, however, could see the Emperor’s abdication come amid a turbulent political environment. The timing depends on when the Diet adopts a proposal on constitutional reforms, which would spark a national referendum.

The situation has led some officials to predict that a referendum won’t come until at least the fall of 2019.

The Cabinet is slated officially to approve the abdication date by Friday.

Diet deliberations on a budget proposal usually reach the final phases in late March, and local government elections are scheduled nationwide for late March through April in 2019.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who aims to put constitutional amendments into force by 2020, will push for discussions on the issue by submitting the LDP proposal to an ordinary session of the Diet to be convened next month.

The pro-revision camp — which includes the LDP, its coalition ally, Komeito, and opposition force Nippon Ishin no Kai — now holds a two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers, a threshold required to force a national referendum. But with an Upper House election set for 2019, the hold on that chamber is anything but certain. Some officials of the government and the LDP see a need to initiate the process for constitutional amendments before the Upper House election.

A national referendum must be held within 60 to 180 days from the adoption by both Diet chambers of a constitutional reform proposal. If a referendum were to take place on the same day as the Upper House election expected in July 2019, the proposal would need to be adopted by the Diet between January and May the same year.

Some LDP officials believe that initiating the process by the end of 2018 will be possible by riding the momentum of Abe’s popularity. He is expected to win a third consecutive term as party president in the leadership election in the fall of the same year.

But timing a national referendum before the Upper House election could be tricky politically. A majority sees difficulties in the Diet putting constitutional amendments forward before the passage of the fiscal 2019 budget proposal. One senior LDP official said that political conflicts are inevitable over constitutional reforms.

It is seen as difficult for the Diet to adopt an amendment proposal in April 2019, after the budget approval, considering Emperor Akihito’s abdication at the end of that month.

In addition, only two months will be left until the Upper House election after Crown Prince Naruhito’s enthronement on May 1, 2019.

“We need to postpone the national referendum until after the Upper House election,” said a senior official of the LDP’s Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution.

An LDP official close to Abe said, “We should decide the timing of a national referendum by reading the direction of public opinion,” suggesting that the party will not necessarily stick with a public vote on the same day as the Upper House election.