Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeatedly emphasizes that economy is the foremost issue in the campaign for the July 10 Upper House election — urging voters to choose whether to endorse his bid to go on with Abenomics or return to what he calls “those dark days” before the policy package was launched. But the race should be a venue for voters to hand down a comprehensive judgment on what his administration has done over the last 3½ years, including the security legislation enacted last year amid sharply divided public opinion and charges that it runs counter to the war-renouncing Constitution. Voters should also be aware that the outcome of the election could set the stage for amending the Constitution.
A change of government is not at stake in an Upper House race, in which half the chamber’s 242 seats come up for grabs every three years. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance retains a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, which holds the upper hand in electing the prime minister. A dismal performance for a ruling party in an Upper House election can trigger calls for a sitting prime minister to step down to take responsibility — as happened to Abe after the LDP-led alliance lost its Upper House majority in 2007. Given that the ruling coalition has a large number of seats not up for re-election, however, the hurdle is quite high for the opposition parties to deprive Abe’s bloc of an overall majority in the upper chamber.
Attention thus focuses on whether the ruling bloc can expand its majority grip — or whether the opposition parties, finally forging a unified campaign in crucial electoral districts, can reverse their track record of being dwarfed by the ruling bloc in all national elections since 2012.
Even though Abe and the other ruling coalition leaders are playing it down as a campaign issue, constitutional revision looms as a possibility depending on the results of the election, because the LDP, along with its coalition ally and other forces that favor amending the Constitution, is the closest it has ever been to gaining a two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers — the strength needed to put proposed amendments to a national referendum.
The LDP-Komeito alliance holds 76 of the 121 uncontested seats in the Upper House, and will need to win 86 out of the 121 seats up for grabs next month to reach the two-thirds threshold of 162. But if the eight uncontested seats of two other parties supportive of constitutional revision are taken into account, their camp is 78 seats shy of the two-thirds line — a goal that is not out of reach given that the LDP and Komeito alone captured 76 seats three years ago.
Since the beginning of the year, Abe, who advocates a “departure from Japan’s postwar regime,” has openly and repeatedly championed amending the postwar Constitution, specifically citing what he views as incongruities in the war-renouncing Article 9. He has even expressed eagerness to achieve a constitutional amendment while he is in office — raising the speculation that he’s serious about winning the two-thirds majority in the Upper House because this is the last triennial race before his second, and supposedly last, term as LDP chief ends in 2018.
Recently, though, he has become more muted about his constitutional ambitions. The LDP’s official platform for this election only briefly touches on the issue at the end — to say that amending the Constitution has been a prime LDP goal since its founding and that the party will strive to build up a national consensus through discussions in the Diet to achieve that goal. This obviously does not preclude the LDP from pushing for an amendment if the party and its allies secure a two-thirds majority. While Abe noted that Diet discussions on the matter have not yet ripened to the point where it should be a campaign issue this time, he also indicated that the LDP is ready to promote talks about specific revisions to the Constitution after the election.
Abe is correct in his assessment. There have been no open political discussions about which part of the Constitution should be amended and for what reason or purpose — because no formal proposals have been made on specific amendments. The LDP unveiled a draft amendment in 2012 — while it was out of power — but Abe recently called that a “springboard for discussions” to build a consensus in the Diet.
Even among political forces that either actively push for or condone revision, there seems little consensus as to what part of the Constitution should be changed and how. The four opposition parties cooperating for this electoral campaign, including the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, are united in opposing amendments under Abe’s watch, but they also have diverse positions on the basic idea of revising the Constitution.
Given that no specific amendments have been either proposed or discussed, it would indeed be premature to ask voters for a judgment on the issue. Constitutional revision looms as an issue because of the prospect that this election may create a window of opportunity for the pro-amendment forces. Voters should keep that prospect in mind when they go to the polls. They should not be swayed by talk of a constitutional amendment for the sheer sake of change, and instead should keep watch over what the parties and their candidates say about specific amendments.
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