Constitutional amendment as a campaign issue

Amending the Constitution is discussed more openly than ever by political parties as they brace for the Oct. 22 general election. Attention will focus on whether pro-amendment forces will gain a two-thirds majority in the Lower House — which has been held by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition. That, however, is only a threshold for initiating an amendment for approval in a national referendum. Political discussions on specifics of what to change in the Constitution and how have not matured enough. Voters — who hold the final say in an amendment — should scrutinize the specific positions of each party on the issue as they weigh their judgment.

For the first time since its return to power in 2012, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is singling out a constitutional amendment as one of the key pledges in its campaign platform. Despite Abe’s repeated push for revising the Constitution, the call for an amendment was only briefly mentioned at the end of the party’s campaign promises in the last three Diet elections. Now the LDP is citing four specific points of amendment— clarifying the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces under the pacifist Constitution, making education free of charge, giving the government emergency powers in case of a national crisis and eliminating Upper House electoral districts that straddle more than one prefecture.

The party pledges that it will seek to achieve “the first-ever amendment to the Constitution” by proposing a revision to the Diet based on sufficient discussions in and out of the party so that the legislature can initiate an amendment for a public referendum. It does not set any timeline for revising the Constitution — although Abe expressed his hopes earlier this year of having an amended Constitution take effect by 2020.

Even within the LDP, however, there is no solid consensus yet on how the Constitution should be changed on the four points. On the most sensitive issue of the war-renouncing Article 9, Abe has proposed adding a new clause that legitimizes the SDF while keeping its original text intact, including the 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.” But some LDP lawmakers point to the inconsistencies with the party’s draft amendment released in 2012, which called for removing the part in Article 9 that disavowed the possession of war potential and stipulating that Japan owns a national defense force. Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition, is more cautious toward revising Article 9.

Last year, Abe’s LDP-Komeito alliance, along with other pro-amendment forces, won a two-thirds majority in the Upper House, for the first time securing the supermajority in both Diet chambers that is needed under Article 96 of the Constitution to initiate an amendment. Now the ruling coalition’s grip on the two-thirds majority in the Lower House, which it has held since retaking power, is at stake in the upcoming race. In addition to a series of scandals and setbacks that hit the Abe administration and the LDP, the launch of a new national party by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, whose fledgling local party upstaged the LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race in July, threatens the LDP-led coalition’s performance in the general election.

Koike says her Kibo no To (Party of Hope), which is set to be the main opponent of the ruling coalition after absorbing much of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party following its effective disbandment last week, is ready to take part in discussing a constitutional amendment. Koike, formerly an LDP lawmaker who served as defense minister, says Article 9 should be a subject of discussion for an amendment, but is critical of Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9. While it is deemed in favor of a constitutional amendment, the party’s concrete position on the issue remains unclear.

Since returning to the helm of government five years ago, Abe has championed amending the Constitution on and off. He first advocated amending Article 96 — to lower the two-thirds majority threshold for initiating an amendment. When that call went nowhere, he changed the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9 in a 2014 Cabinet decision to lift the self-imposed ban on Japan engaging in acts of collective self-defense, which was then enshrined in the security legislation enacted the following year. In May, he suddenly came up with the timeline of amending the Constitution by 2020 along with the proposal to revise Article 9, which had not been discussed within the LDP.

For Abe, who earlier advocated a departure from Japan’s postwar regime, amending the Constitution, which was established 70 years ago while the nation was under the United States-led postwar occupation, is perhaps the goal in itself — instead of the means to achieve policy objectives. If that is the case, voters should consider whether it’s the proper way to attempt to change the nation’s supreme code.