A bill to amend the national referendum law on revision of the Constitution is likely to be passed by the Diet before the end of the current session, set to run through mid-June, as the pro-revision ruling party agreed Thursday to accept a request from the opposition to adjust it.
The debate over the bill, which will facilitate voting in a referendum on revision of the top law by setting conditions similar to those of national elections, had been stalled for around three years, with the main opposition party calling for restrictions on campaign advertising and finance.
Japan's pacifist Constitution, which took effect in 1947, has never been amended. Any proposed revision needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers before the proposal can be put to a national referendum.
The bill, which was approved Thursday at the House of Representatives' Commission on the Constitution, is expected to be endorsed by the Lower House plenary session next Tuesday and sent to the House of Councilors, according to lawmakers.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which aims to alter the Constitution, submitted the bill to amend the referendum law in June 2018 under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, together with Komeito, its junior coalition partner, and two smaller parties.
But the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has opposed the bill, which includes steps to improve access to polling places by installing them at railway stations and commercial facilities, citing the need to restrict TV, radio and online commercials on the issue.
The CDP has argued that without the restrictions, voting would be influenced by campaigners' funds and could not be done fairly.
The LDP has decided to accept the CDP's request to add a clause saying legislative measures on such restrictions will be taken within three years after the revised law comes into force, in exchange for its cooperation to pass the bill.
Ahead of the Lower House commission meeting, the secretaries-general and Diet affairs heads of the LDP and the CDP signed the agreement to modify the bill and enact it during the current Diet session.
"We've reached a good conclusion," LDP Diet affairs leader Hiroshi Moriyama told reporters.
"The ruling camp has accepted our party's proposal entirely. We appreciate that," CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama said. "We support the modified bill and promise to ensure its enactment during the current Diet session."
Without an accord between the ruling and opposition parties, it was highly likely that the bill would be scrapped as the Lower House is set to be dissolved by this fall, when its members' four-year term expires.
The issue of revising the Constitution has drawn public attention amid growing calls for the government to deal more effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Kyodo News survey released ahead of Constitution Memorial Day on Monday showed 57% of the respondents believe Japan needs to amend its Constitution to introduce an emergency clause giving more power to the Cabinet and limiting private rights, eclipsing the 42% who said such a stipulation was not necessary.
Public worry over the prolonged fight against COVID-19 is believed to have fanned calls for stronger anti-virus measures with the introduction of an emergency clause, as some believe the steps taken to date by the government have lacked teeth.
For example, Japan's state of emergency over the virus does not entail a hard lockdown of the kind some other countries have imposed, and largely relies on the cooperation of the public and businesses.
As for whether to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution — one of the most contentious issues in the debate over amending the top law — 51% saw a need to change it, while 45% said such a revision was not necessary.
Abe, who led the country for nearly eight years through last September, was specifically aiming to add a reference to the Self-Defense Forces in a revised Constitution in order to end decades of debate over their constitutionality.
In a video message sent to a meeting of a group advocating constitutional amendments, held on Constitution Day on Monday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, "We must first aim for the enactment of the national referendum law revision bill."
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