The Diet has begun discussions on two separate bills submitted by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, and by the No. 1 opposition party, to specify procedures for holding a national referendum to amend the Constitution.
Submission of the bills is odd in itself because, at this moment, there are no concrete discussions to revise the Constitution, although the LDP last year disclosed a draft constitutional revision calling for changes to the war-renouncing Article 9 to allow creation of full-fledged armed forces.
A constitutional revision should be pursued only when a strong voice and enthusiasm exist for it among the public. Discussing procedures for changing the Constitution in the absence of either public demand or a widely discussed proposal for a concrete revision runs counter to reason.
Since the current Diet session ends June 18, even ruling coalition politicians admit that enacting a referendum procedure bill into a law will be difficult.
The two bills have a history leading up to their submission. The LDP, New Komeito and the Democratic Party of Japan had been talking about jointly submitting such a bill to the Diet. But the situation changed after Mr. Ichiro Ozawa was elected president of the DPJ in April. He abandoned the approach of his predecessor, Mr. Seiji Maehara, in favor of one that took a more confrontational stance toward Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s government and the ruling coalition.
As a result, the DPJ came to oppose the idea of jointly submitting a bill. The ruling coalition submitted its bill first. Then, in reaction, the DPJ reactively followed with its own bill.
Because of the DPJ’s opposition to a joint submission, it was expected at one point that the ruling coalition would not submit a bill at all. There is also a force within the ruling coalition that believes that the coalition should be careful about going it alone. This is because it is feared that the forceful enactment of a bill might alienate the DPJ to the extent of complicating future discussions on a concrete constitutional revision proposal.
So the question remains as to why the ruling coalition has decided to submit a bill. A strong possibility is that it hoped that Diet discussions on the bill would help reduce the “allergy” or indifference among the public to a constitutional revision, the most contentious being a revision of Article 9. Some people regard the article, as it exists now, as a major obstacle to Japan’s greater military role, including participation in a collective defense.
Article 96 of the Constitution stipulates that amendments to the Constitution must be initiated by the Diet through a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each chamber, and that ratification requires a majority affirmative vote in a referendum.
There are several differences between the ruling coalition’s bill and the DPJ’s. Under the ruling coalition bill, the referendum would be solely for amending the Constitution, while the DPJ bill also would allow referendums on major state issues. The ruling block wants the voting age to be at least 20, while the DPJ favors a minimum age of 18.
Constitutional revision would be easier under the ruling bloc bill than under the DPJ bill, since the ruling coalition wants a blank vote to be treated as null and void, while the DPJ views a blank vote as tantamount to opposing revision.
Originally, the ruling coalition had called for including a clause that would restrict media reporting on a constitutional revision referendum. At first, it wanted to prohibit “false” reports or predictions of a referendum result, among other things. It softened that position later, calling for “consideration” on the part of the media to prevent reports from “unjustly” affecting a referendum result. Still, in the face of strong criticism from the public, media and opposition parties, it ended up dropping restrictions on media reporting altogether.
The ruling coalition’s bill calls for establishing a body inside the Diet to publicize a constitutional revision proposal initiated by the Diet. But it does not include a mechanism to guarantee that both the pros and cons of revision will be equitably explained in the body’s gazette.
Given the Diet’s schedule, the planned election of a new LDP president in September, and an Upper House election in the summer of 2007, politicians are unlikely to seriously discuss the bills. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to suggest that the ruling coalition has submitted its bill as a way of artificially creating momentum for a constitutional revision at a time when there are no concrete discussions for such a revision.
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