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Tuesday’s passage by the Lower House of a bill to amend the national referendum law in relation to constitutional revision puts the spotlight on a powerful Diet group tasked with debating the controversial issue. The bill is expected to be sent to the Upper House this week and become law by next month.

The revisions would entail an increase in the number of polling stations, allowing people to cast their ballots at railway stations and commercial facilities. It also includes a mandate for enacting legislative restrictions within three years on the amount of money that can be spent on referendum-related television, radio and internet advertising.

While an actual referendum on constitutional changes will not be held anytime soon, constitutional revision is likely to be a major campaign issue in the next Lower House election. But any revisions eventually presented in a referendum would have to be agreed to first by the Commission on the Constitution, before then being sent to the Diet at large.

The commission is actually two bodies across both chambers. They conduct research on the Constitution and propose fundamental legislative changes closely related to either the supreme law itself or to the national referendum law. The commission was inaugurated in August 2007 under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his first term in office.

Unlike constitutional committees set up by individual political parties, the Diet commission includes members of all major groups in the legislature. The composition of each commission is based on the strength of the parties in that particular chamber.

Commission members in both houses had long argued over a bill to amend the national referendum law, which had been originally submitted for discussion in June 2018 under Abe with the support of the Liberal Democratic Party’s ruling coalition partner Komeito.

The LDP-Komeito proposal was to improve access to polling stations. But the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) was concerned, seeing passage of the law as a step toward revising the Constitution.

In addition, they were worried that allowing massive ad campaigns by well-funded political parties and political groups would unduly influence the outcome of the vote, so the CDP called for restrictions on TV, radio and online advertising. In the end, the LDP agreed to add a clause to the bill that promised legislative restrictions on advertising within three years of the revised referendum law entering into force.

Jun Azumi (right), Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, agrees to pass the revised national referendum law with Hiroshi Moriyama, his counterpart in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, at the Diet on Thursday. | KYODO
Jun Azumi (right), Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, agrees to pass the revised national referendum law with Hiroshi Moriyama, his counterpart in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, at the Diet on Thursday. | KYODO

But while Tuesday’s agreement solves the issue concerning a national referendum, future commission meetings still have to deal with other controversial issues.

The LDP is pushing for constitutional language that would formally recognize the need for the Self-Defense Forces under the war-renouncing Article 9, a measure widely opposed by opposition parties. In addition, the party wants the Constitution to grant the government more power during a state of emergency, such as after a natural disaster. That, in turn, raises questions and concerns over private property rights.

Each party’s position on these issues is expected to be a major theme in the general election later this year. Large losses by one party or another could mean changes in the structure of the Lower House commission, affecting how discussions on possible constitutional revision are carried out.

A recent poll by Kyodo News before Constitution Day on May 3 showed 57% of respondents favored the introduction of an emergency clause in the Constitution that would give the Cabinet more power at the expense of private property rights, while 42% said such a clause was not needed. On revising Article 9, 51% said it needed to be changed but 45% were opposed.

Public concern over the amending the Constitution presents one political barrier to enacting constitutional revision, but the legal hurdle is also high. A two-thirds supermajority is required in both Diet chambers to pass constitutional amendments, with these then put to a referendum.

At the moment, the ruling coalition and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), which has adopted a pro-revision stance, make up a supermajority in the Lower House but not the Upper House. As a result, keeping their supermajority in the autumn election is crucial for these three pro-revision forces.

In addition, an Upper House election must be held by July next year. If those three parties were to gain a supermajority in that chamber, then the commission in each chamber could approve a final proposal for constitutional revision that had the requisite support of both Diet chambers.

In the Lower House, the commission consists of 50 members, including 30 from the LDP, 12 from the CDP, three from Komeito, two each from the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and Nippon Ishin, and one member from the Democratic Party for the People (DPP).

The Upper House commission is made up of 45 members, including 22 from the LDP, eight from the CDP, five from Komeito, three from Nippon Ishin, three from the DPP, three from the JCP and one from Your Party.

The Lower House commission is chaired by Hiroyuki Hosoda, who also heads the LDP’s largest faction, from which Abe comes. The Upper House commission is chaired by the LDP’s Yoshimasa Hayashi.

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