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With pro-constitutional revision forces just shy of the necessary seats, the DPP may be the party to tip the scales

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

The Upper House election may have already faded from the minds of the public, but two weeks after the excitement of the nation going to the polls, Nagatacho is back to business as usual: deal-making and politics.

With pro-constitutional revision groups only four seats shy of the 164 seats needed to secure a two-thirds majority in the house and pave the way toward constitutional change, it could be the Democratic Party for the People with its 23 Upper House seats that tips the balance.

In recent weeks, a tug-of-war between the pro- and anti-revision forces has been playing out within the DPP, with DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki wavering between the two sides and failing to take a clear stand either way.

Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, said Monday that he had asked the DPP, as well as independent lawmakers, to join the CDP’s parliamentary group in the Lower House.

That represents a major policy shift for Edano, who has until now staunchly refused to allow other opposition parties to join forces with his own organization — in particular the DPP.

Tamaki didn’t clearly respond to Edano’s offer, saying that he would have to discuss the request “internally.” He also suggested to Edano that the two parties link up in the Upper House as well, instead of only the Lower House as per Edano’s suggestion.

It seems Edano made the proposal in a bid to close the distance with the DPP, thereby preventing it from joining the pro-revision forces, in particular in the Upper House. To initiate a national referendum on any constitutional revision, support of two-thirds of both the Lower and Upper Houses is required.

The DPP has opposed revision of the war-renouncing Article 9 unless “clarifying a limit to the use of force for self-defense.” Tamaki has opposed Abe’s suggested amendment to Article 9, but the DPP has also repeatedly emphasized the need for open discussion and it is well known that there are pro-revision lawmakers in its ranks. The party’s position thus appears more flexible than that of Edano’s CDP, which has clearly opposed any revision of Article 9.

“Our stance on constitutional revision won’t change” even if the two parties do join forces, Tamaki told reporters Monday.

“We don’t think the CDP is a party that would refuse to have any discussion about constitutional revision at all, so our stance on pushing forward extensive debate on the topic won’t change either,” he added.

Forming a joint kaiha parliamentary group does not requires a merger of party organizations or platforms. If the DPP were to join the CDP’s parliamentary group it would give them more time to grill the ruling bloc in the Diet, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean they would overcome policy differences on key issues — such as those over nuclear power and whether to allow married couples to use multiple surnames.

The two parties also have a fraught history, with the DPP being what remains of the Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike-backed Kibo no To (Party of Hope), while the CDP was created mainly by lawmakers who had been shunned from joining Kibo no To for being “too liberal.”

That leaves many rivers for the two parties to cross, and also creates space for pro-revision forces to woo the DPP.

Those who support revising the postwar Constitution — centered on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — have good reason to do that, given the DPP’s number of seats in the Upper House.

Even in the lead up to the election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was already extending an olive branch to the DPP, hinting at the possibility that they could work together on bringing about constitutional revision.

“There are lawmakers within the DPP that are open to the idea of constitutional revision, and my hope is that I can build a consensus among such lawmakers,” Abe said during a party leader debate in early July.

He reiterated his hope that the DPP would tie up with pro-revision forces when speaking to reporters a day after the Upper House vote.

Abe has proposed revising Article 9 to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces, arguing that it would not change the substance of the SDF’s military operations. However, opposition forces centered around the CDP have argued that such a revision would allow government interpretation of Article 9 to be significantly changed later on, to drastically expand the legal scope of the SDF’s missions overseas.

So far, the DPP has stopped short of indicating a clear position on whether or not they are in favor of constitutional change. Instead, their website states that the possibility of amending the top law should be “debated extensively” while “maintaining the basic tenets of the current Constitution.”

Nonetheless, Tamaki addressed Abe directly on an internet broadcast after the election, saying that he “wanted to push forward the discussion on constitutional revision” despite the “differences” that they have.

Some media outlets took that to mean he was throwing his support behind Abe’s long-held ambition to revise Japan’s top law.

The comments even came as a surprise to some party members, with DPP lawmaker Keisuke Tsumura tweeting “I hope this is some sort of mistake…” in reference to Tamaki’s comments.

“What I want is to have a candid discussion in person with Prime Minister Abe,” Tamaki said the following day to reporters, seeking to clarify his enthusiasm for reaching out to Abe.

“That discussion won’t mean that we will change our stance as a party,” he added.

Edano has set mid-August as the deadline for Tamaki to respond on joining up with the CDP in the Lower House. Although that response in itself may not be a definitive indication of where the DPP is headed, it may offer a hint as to how the scales may tip on constitutional revision in the coming months.