A summary of the points of discussion on amending the Constitution, compiled by a panel of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, shows that consensus remains elusive even within the LDP on how specifically it intends to revise the nation’s supreme code. Abe has repeatedly expressed hopes that an amended Constitution will take effect in 2020, and the LDP plans to submit its draft to the Diet next year for discussion with other parties with a view to initiating an amendment by summer 2019 — while the two-thirds Diet majority grip by the ruling coalition and its pro-amendment allies is secure. But as the prime minister himself concedes, discussions on amending the Constitution should not be driven by such time frames or political considerations.
The prospect of a constitutional revision became real after the LDP-Komeito alliance under Abe, who has championed an amendment as a key element of his political agenda, won a two-thirds majority in the Upper House along with other pro-amendment forces in 2016.
Under Article 96 of the Constitution, an amendment must be initiated by a concurring vote of two-thirds of all members in each chamber of the Diet, and then ratified in a national referendum. The October general election returned the LDP-Komeito alliance to its two-thirds grip of the Lower House since 2012, but half of the Upper House seats again come up for grabs in a triennial election in 2019.
Earlier this year, Abe for the first time set a time frame in his quest for an amendment, telling a May 3 Constitution Day gathering of his wish to see a revised Constitution take effect in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympic Games. While he notes that the timeline is not preordained, Abe reiterated his case in a recent speech that he wants 2020 “to be the year in which Japan would be reborn” and that “discussions on the Constitution should be deepened just as momentum toward the dawn of a new era builds up.”
Initially, the LDP headquarters for promoting constitutional revision planned to compile the party’s amendment draft by the end of the year. However, the LDP panel ended up adopting a summary of the points of discussion among the party’s members, which listed divergent views on two of the four prospective areas of revision. On the war-renouncing Article 9, the summary listed both an idea put forth by Abe himself in May — keeping its current text intact while adding a new clause clarifying the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces — and another that follows the LDP’s draft amendment released in 2012 when the party was out of power — to remove its second clause saying that “land, sea, and air forces as well as other war potentials will never be maintained” and add a new clause clarifying the SDF’s nature and purpose.
Abe emphasizes that his plan will not change the SDF’s mission and powers. It is apparently intended to win the support of Komeito, which is more cautious than the LDP toward a constitutional amendment, especially changing the original text of Article 9. However, there is concern that adding a new provision legitimizing the SDF will lead to effectively invalidating its second clause about the non-possession of war potentials, under which the SDF has been defined as a minimum force for the nation’s self-defense, and that it may create more room for expanding the scope of SDF missions.
The LDP panel also listed two different ideas on an amendment that would define responses to emergency situations like large-scale natural disasters. One would set provisions for extending the tenure of Diet members or rules on exceptions to election dates in case the disasters make it difficult to hold the elections as scheduled. The other idea is to give emergency powers to the government in times of these crises, including restriction of private rights.
There are also no broad consensus yet on the specifics of an amendment among the parties that either push for or condone revising the Constitution. Komeito remains much more guarded on an amendment itself. The party’s chief, Natsuo Yamaguchi, says the public has yet to reach a consensus on amending the Constitution. Another Komeito leader cautions that an amendment to be initiated by the Diet must not split public opinion but win the support of “70 to 90 percent” of the voters.
The lack of consensus on the specifics of an amendment raises the question as to whether an amendment is indeed a political priority that needs urgent action. The two-thirds Diet majority grip of the ruling coalition and its allies may give proponents of an amendment reason to rush to the goal while they can. But they should first spend sufficient time to come to an agreement on which part of the Constitution should be amended, how and for what purposes.
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