As Japan kicks off 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces what is perhaps the biggest political dilemma of his career: whether to call the nation’s first-ever referendum on revising the postwar Constitution.

Abe sees rewriting the U.S.-drafted charter, which has remained untouched since its inception 70 years ago, as his legacy project — so much so that, frustrated by long-stalled progress, he got the ball rolling last year by making a surprise announcement that he wants to see the supreme law revised by 2020.

“This year is going to be a year of action. We will put into action, step by step, policy goals that we promised in last year’s general election” Abe said in a New Year’s statement released Monday. Constitutional revision was among the key pledges his ruling Liberal Democratic Party made ahead of the Lower House poll.

The political calendar suggests Abe has to move fast and call a referendum — a prerequisite for a constitutional revision — sometime this year, or his chances of amending the charter by 2020, or even by the end of his widely expected third term in 2021, will erode considerably. But at the same time, hustling to initiate Japan’s first-ever referendum only to fail, experts say, would be a fiasco so great that Abe would have to resign in disgrace.

The LDP’s members back the idea of a referendum this year.

Their logic is Emperor Akihito’s scheduled abdication in spring 2019 — the first retirement by a sitting emperor in 200 years — will make it taboo for the Diet to discuss anything controversial enough to spoil the mood of quiet and national unity that is likely to spread several months ahead of his exit. The triennial Upper House election slated for summer that year also poses the danger of Abe’s ruling bloc and its allies losing the critical two-thirds supermajority needed to call the referendum.

“Given the political calendar, we have a very limited amount of time left to prepare for a referendum. In other words, we should try to submit our amendments to next year’s regular Diet session, call a referendum before it ends and have the vote take place sometime between next fall and December,” LDP lawmaker Tsuneo Kitamura insisted at a party panel on constitutional reforms last month.

As Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, the political risk arm of advisory firm Teneo, put it: “The reality is that if the Diet cannot approve amendments in 2018 it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Abe to achieve revision before his third term as the LDP’s president would end in 2021.”

Even if Abe’s camp survives the 2019 election, the desire for national unity will likely persist until after the hosting of the 2020 Olympics, Harris said.

“It seems unlikely that a divisive referendum campaign will be successful at a time when the public is likely to seek displays of unity from the country’s leaders,” he said, adding 2018 “really looks like the best and perhaps only chance.”

To achieve the timeline proposed by Kitamura, the LDP had originally aimed to formulate a party consensus on how to amend the charter by the end of last year.

But this goal was thrown into disarray by the party’s historic rout in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July and Abe’s surprise decision a few months later to dissolve the Lower House for a snap poll.

At the party’s internal meeting last month, the LDP failed to build a consensus on how to achieve four revisions it promised ahead of the October election, including rewriting the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 to formalize the status of the Self-Defense Forces.

Fears of an unsuccessful referendum were palpable in the meeting, with party members leery of a potential public backlash against any hint of heavy-handedness on Abe’s part.

“If we’re really going to have a referendum, we must keep in mind why approval ratings for the Abe administration hit rock bottom” last summer, LDP lawmaker and close Abe aide Ichita Yamamoto told the meeting, referring to the plunge caused by two favoritism scandals Abe was involved in last year.

“That was because Prime Minister Abe, who had always been considered a ‘realist,’ was seen going too far and crossing the line” in his handling of the scandals, Yamamoto said.

This year’s regular Diet session, then, could play an important part in shaping public opinion toward a referendum and Abe’s policies.

The Defense Ministry’s recent decisions to acquire cruise missiles with an operational range capable of striking North Korean targets and to introduce the costly Aegis Ashore anti-missile system, for example, already have angered the opposition camp.

Opposition lawmakers, particularly those from the Constitutional Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party, are likely to portray Abe as “cavalier about existing constraints on Japan’s armed forces and overly eager to involve Japan in conflicts overseas, a line of argument that could strongly influence the debate over revising Article 9 of the Constitution and the likelihood that an amendment could win a referendum vote,” Harris at Teneo Intelligence said.

Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor of politics at Temple University in Tokyo, said failing to win 50 percent of the vote in a referendum, as is needed for any constitutional revision, would be “devastating” for Abe.

“For it to fail on the first attempt would be . . . that’s it. You’re gone. That would be the end of it. He would have to resign in humiliation. He would be out, again, as a total failure,” Cucek said, referring to Abe’s ignominious exit in 2007 that triggered speculation over his health.

Noting the Abe Cabinet’s popularity is underpinned less by genuine support for his policies than by the lack of a viable alternative, Cucek said Abe can’t count on a weak, fractured opposition to emerge victorious this time around.

“Unfortunately, when they do a referendum before constitutional amendment, it’s the policy that’s up. It’s not like, ‘We voted for this constitutional amendment because it looked better than other constitutional amendments.’ No, that’s not how people will think about that. They’d have to make it saleable.”

As such, Cucek said it’s possible that Abe, despite popular belief, may not pursue amendments at all during his term in office.

The view is echoed by Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo who pointed out support for the Cabinet — which the latest NHK survey showed was on the way to recovery but nonetheless just below 50 percent — is not robust enough for Abe to be able to railroad through a referendum.

If the LDP’s proposals face fierce public resistance, Abe, Uchiyama said, may give up on pursuing a revision altogether, and instead prioritize treading carefully to ensure the longevity of his leadership.

This year, Abe will find himself at a crossroads in his career, as he contemplates seeking a historic third term as LDP president — and therefore as prime minister — a gambit that if realized would extend the end of his term to September 2021 from September this year, putting him on course to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister ever.

His candidacy for the LDP presidential election in September has not been officially announced yet. But in the New Year’s statement, Abe said his Cabinet will continue to forge ahead with efforts to reform Japan as it braces for “2020 and beyond” — indicating his intention to run for a third term.

Uchiyama said that Abe will probably win, but his power base is not as solid as it was before he was hit hard by the Moritomo and Kake favoritism scandals.

Among names floated as his challengers are ex-Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and internal affairs minister Seiko Noda, but Abe’s chance of winning the race hinges mostly on the candidacy — or lack thereof — of former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

“There is talk that Kishida, in a behind-the-scenes conversation with Abe, agreed not to run this time around so his intraparty faction will throw its support behind Abe, in which case neither Ishiba nor Noda will be able to amass more votes than Abe,” Uchiyama said.

“But the question is what would happen if Kishida does run and anti-Abe forces aligned with Ishiba and Noda decide to unify their support for him. … That would make the race unpredictable,” the professor said.

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