Amending the Constitution not an end in itself

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is reported to have taken a step back from his push to amend the Constitution by 2020 — following steep declines in the approval ratings of his administration in media polls — indicating last week that he would leave the matter to discussions within his Liberal Democratic Party and in the Diet. Abe and members of his Liberal Democratic Party should indeed stop and consider whether the amendment they’re pursuing is really based on a pressing and genuine need to change the Constitution, or is driven by the political window of opportunity opened by their majority control of the Diet.

Abe’s LDP-Komeito governing coalition, along with other forces favoring a constitutional amendment, gained control of a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet as a result of the Upper House election in July last year — which means they can now initiate an amendment to the Constitution and put it up for approval in a national referendum. Abe, eager to change the Constitution while he is in office, pushed discussions on the issue forward in May when he expressed his hope that an amended Constitution would take effect in 2020 and singled out the war-renouncing Article 9 as a target of revision to clarify the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces. The prime minister took the initiative to expedite the LDP discussions and said the party would submit its amendment proposal to the Diet this fall — so that the legislature could act on an amendment as early as next year.

That schedule now appears to be in doubt after Abe’s once seemingly solid support ratings took a nosedive — following a series of scandals that hurt the administration and LDP lawmakers — and the party suffered severe electoral setbacks at the polls, including a stunning defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. In reshuffling his Cabinet last week (which gave a boost to his approval ratings), the prime minister said the “schedule (for amending the Constitution) should not be determined in advance,” indicating that he proposed the timeline for an amendment “to spur discussions” on the issue. Abe also said he would like the LDP to take the lead because it will be the Diet that will initiate an amendment. A close aide to Abe told the media that the remarks represent a change in the plan to submit an LDP proposal to the Diet this fall.

Leaders of the LDP and Komeito also sound more guarded now. LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said the party will “cautiously listen to people’s opinions” instead of “rushing to find a goal” on the issue. The party’s new policy chief, Fumio Kishida, said there are “diverse arguments concerning Article 9” and that the LDP should first carefully discuss the matter among its members. Natsuo Yamaguchi, chief of Komeito — which has generally been reluctant toward an amendment — said Abe was stating the obvious in his latest remark and that an amendment should proceed “as a result of a consensus built through discussions” in the Diet.

It’s not clear whether a constitutional amendment by 2020 is now off the political agenda. A two-thirds majority in the Lower House may not be guaranteed after the chamber is dissolved for a snap election — which must be held before its members’ current four-year terms expire in December 2018 — and if the Abe administration and the LDP are still serious about changing the Constitution, there will be calls for initiating an amendment while the ruling coalition and its allies hold the needed majority. Abe and the LDP leaders may be just posturing to deflect popular criticism by easing their rhetoric on the Constitution and saying they will focus instead on the economy.

Either way, Abe’s amendment proposal appears to be a product of political comprise that prioritized gaining the support of the LDP’s prospective partners in seeking a revision. In proposing that the text of Article 9 should be kept intact — including its renunciation of “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and the disavowal of “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential” — while adding a new provision legitimizing the SDF, Abe was apparently mindful of the position of Komeito, which has called for adding new provisions to the Constitution instead of altering its text if it is to be amended.

Questions have been raised from among LDP lawmakers, however, as to inconsistencies with the party’s 2012 draft amendment, which called for deleting the part of Article 9 about non-possession of any war potential and clarifying that Japan holds a national defense force. Abe’s proposal does not seem to serve any practical purpose except, as the prime minister says, to dispel doubts about the constitutionality of the SDF — a question that successive governments have dismissed for decades by saying that Article 9 does not deny the nation the right to defend itself.

Another component of the proposal — making education, including the higher variety, free — is believed aimed at securing the support of Nippon Ishin no Kai, which has called for free education as a key pillar of its push to revise the Constitution. But some LDP lawmakers who spoke at recent sessions of the party’s conference promoting constitutional amendment reportedly cast doubts about such a provision, saying free education can be achieved by amending relevant laws, instead of changing the Constitution, and that it will be difficult to secure the fiscal means to make all education free.

The Constitution should not be amended as an end in itself just because political circumstances make it possible. The LDP and other parties should think deeply about whether the amendment they’re seeking is what the nation genuinely needs.