National / Politics | ANALYSIS

With debate on constitutional reform sidelined, has immigration law been a pyrrhic victory for Abe?

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

It was in the early hours of Saturday morning that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling bloc rammed through the Diet a contentious immigration bill, at last defeating hours of fierce protest by opposition lawmakers who had shouted at — and even wrestled with — a committee chairman trying to finalize the vote.

But Abe’s success in enacting the landmark bill, which will bring a legion of foreign workers into a nation traditionally averse to immigration but in desperate need of laborers, may turn out to have been a pyrrhic victory.

As this year’s extraordinary Diet session wrapped up Monday, Abe found himself not an inch closer to fulfilling his longtime ambition of amending the nation’s postwar Constitution. The heavy-handed way the ruling bloc tried to pass the revised immigration law has taken a toll, antagonizing opposition lawmakers so much that they have refused to sit down and reboot constitutional debate with pro-revision forces.

“My desire to see a new Constitution take effect in 2020 remains unchanged,” Abe told a news conference Monday evening, repeating his previously proclaimed time line for amending the national charter.

But when asked about the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s failure to fulfill Abe’s earlier demand that its own amendment proposals be submitted to the Diet this session, Abe stopped short of elaborating on what his amendment strategy might look like going forward.

“The future schedule depends on the Diet,” he said.

Abe instead said he expects “each political party to disclose details on what it thinks about revising the Constitution or what amendment proposal it has to deepen public debate on the matter.” He also expressed hopes that “a broad consensus across the wide political spectrum” will be formed over the topic.

This extraordinary Diet session has been dominated by wrangling over the bill to overhaul the immigration law.

On Monday, Abe said the new visa system under the revised law is an “urgent” priority at a time when many small firms across the country, especially in such industries as construction, agriculture and nursing care, grapple with an acute manpower crunch.

“This is a necessary framework to make sure talented foreign workers will play a bigger role in Japan amid a nationwide labor shortage,” Abe said.

“I want them to support Japan’s economy.”

But the bill has often also led to escalated tensions with opposition lawmakers, who have slammed it as void of key details and claimed that too little time was spent deliberating it.

The haste with which the ruling bloc pushed to enact the new law has done little to ease their path to the negotiating table on a possible constitutional amendment. As a result, the Commission on the Constitution — a Diet panel tasked with discussing the issue — wasn’t convened even once for any formal debate this session.

“Things have been boisterous over this immigration bill, which I think has created a situation where we were hard-pressed to be nice (to the ruling bloc) on the Constitution front when we were so opposed” to the bill, said Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, at a news conference last month.

From the get-go, Abe’s enthusiasm for speeding up discussions on constitutional change was evident in the way he tapped his conservative allies — former education minister Hakubun Shimomura and former internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo — for key posts in the Commission on the Constitution.

But Shimomura failed to stay on script, blurting out last month that opposition lawmakers were “abandoning their jobs,” in what was taken as a hostile dig at their refusal to comply with an early convening of the Constitution panel.

Shimomura’s gaffe provided the opposition, which was already angry over the immigration bill, with fresh ammunition to protest, further stalling momentum for constitutional debate.

In fact not only the opposition but also the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, seemed cautious about the LDP’s push for an early start of Diet discussions on constitutional revision.

Appearing on a program on Fuji TV, Kazuo Kitagawa, head of the party’s constitutional panel, said last month that so little time has been spent deliberating constitutional revision in the Diet that it is “inconceivable” to call a referendum — a prerequisite for any change to the charter — even during next year’s regular legislative session, which typically runs through the first half of the year.

Kitagawa’s comment bodes ill for Abe, who needs Komeito’s support to even initiate a referendum.

Without Komeito on board, LDP-led pro-revision forces — which also include fringe opposition support — would fall significantly short of controlling a two-thirds supermajority in the Upper House. The law stipulates approval by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet as a condition for calling a referendum.

While the fall Diet session came to a lackluster end in terms of amending the Constitution, it did pass some important bills.

The Diet enacted a controversial law allowing private companies to run water supply services, a move the government says will facilitate efforts to update aging water facilities. Critics, however, caution that water bills may increase as a result of effective privatization.

It also approved a bill to designate a one-off national holiday period to celebrate next year’s Imperial succession, creating a 10-day block of vacation for many from late April.

With the fall Diet session over, the government is for now looking to approve a draft of the initial general account budget toward year-end, with a view to submitting it to the regular Diet session that will begin in January. Ruling parties are also set to agree on a tax reform package for fiscal 2019 by the end of this year.

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