May 18, 2017 10:00 am JST

Japan's Abe is determined to change the constitution

The time is ripe for the prime minister to deliver on long overdue promises

ITARU OISHI, Nikkei senior staff writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a conference on Japan's constitution in Tokyo on May 1. © AP

TOKYO After years of biding his time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is poised to strike. He wants the constitution changed, and he wants it changed fast.

The cornerstone of his controversial proposal focuses on acknowledging the country's Self-Defense Forces, a divisive issue at best. To sweeten the pot in order to gain support for this first-ever revision to the country's postwar constitution, Abe's plan also calls for tuition-free higher education.

But the clock is ticking. Abe wants to effect the change by 2020, and there are a number of procedural hurdles along the way, not to mention the heavy lifting of convincing a skeptical public.

GETTING SERIOUS On May 1, Abe attended a conference promoting establishment of a new constitution at Tokyo's Parliamentary Museum. This marked the first time a sitting prime minister has attended the annual event, and it was no surprise Abe was there. He has been calling for constitutional change since his first term as prime minister in 2006. But upon returning to office in 2012, he shelved the idea, focusing instead on consolidating power and jump-starting the economy.

His appearance at the conference clearly signaled his intent to revisit the issue. To hammer home his determination, he abruptly canceled a planned Northern European tour so he could be home for the event.

"The time is starting to look ripe," Abe said in his address to the conference. "What is needed now is to write a concrete proposal."

The timing was perfect.

There are two reasons for his renewed push. First, his pro-change supporters are getting antsy. Four years into his second term, Abe has checked off most of the items on his policy bucket list: He has pushed through a state secrets law and new security legislation. And deliberations on revising the organized crime law are well underway. Now, his conservative base expects him to deliver on what could be the crowning achievement of his political career.

Second, Abe has to act while he has the necessary backing. The ruling coalition of his Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner Komeito -- along with other pro-change lawmakers -- currently give Abe the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, or parliament, to push through a constitutional motion and trigger a public referendum.

Another general election will be held by December 2018, and the LDP is unlikely to be ousted from power. Yet some political pundits think the LDP could conceivably lose 20 to 40 seats as voters grow tired of Abe and the party's grip on power. His sweeping victory in 2012 ushered in a wave of young, unskilled politicians, a fact not lost on an Abe-weary public. So there is a real risk that the coalition could lose its supermajority.

Thus, Abe needs to pass the motion before any new elections.

DEVILISH DETAILS There are some tricky procedural matters confronting Abe. The law stipulates a 60- to 180-day wait between parliament voting on a referendum motion and the public casting ballots. Nearly everyone agrees that a full 180 days would be preferable, as it would be the first single-issue vote in Japanese history.

Another hurdle is that the motion must be submitted while parliament is in session. Technically, there are four opportunities to do this between now and the end of lower house members' terms in December 2018: the current ordinary session through mid-June; an extraordinary session in the fall; and next year's regular and special sessions.

It is too late for the current session, so Abe has only three shots left. Moreover, since it is doubtful the government would submit the motion at the start of a session, the most likely times are November or December of this year, next June or July, or next November or December.

Given the six-month wait after the motion makes it through the Diet, the actual referendum could be held next May or June, in December 2018 or January 2019, or in May or June 2019.

Abe's best bet would be to call a referendum sometime around June 2018, then hold it the following December. If the lower house has not already been dissolved, the referendum could piggyback on the general election.

For Abe, this timetable would be ideal.

He will face an LDP leadership contest in September 2018. But if the referendum has already been set, he could easily convince his party to leave him at the helm, at least until the referendum results are in.

Plus, in October 2018, the government will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration -- the 1868 upheaval that brought back the Imperial throne and opened Japan to the outside world. This is likely to stir patriotic sentiment, and perhaps even an emotional outpouring to bring back the glory days of Japan as a rising power.

The LDP, however, is worried about a referendum loss. Despite widespread support among the public for the Self-Defense Forces, there is also considerable concern that granting them constitutional recognition could put Japan back on a slippery slope to pre-World War II ideologies.

PERFECT TIMING Passing the referendum motion is likely to take at least two Diet sessions -- one to decide on the amendments, and the other to hammer out details.

Abe's immediate plan will be first to have constitutional commissions in both chambers hurry along debate during the current session. After this, he'll have to define the referendum motion during the special session this fall. Finally, if all goes well, he can organize a vote on the motion during next year's ordinary session.

Like it or not, Abe is determined to rewrite Japan's constitution. And to his credit, the prime minister has played his hand well, as there has been no better time to try and do it than now.

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