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Shinzo Abe's constitution plans may spark triple election in 2019

Backed by willing lawmakers, Japanese PM plots big push for revisions by 2020

Japanese soldiers like this one belong to the country's Self-Defense Forces, which have no constitutional recognition -- something Prime Minister Shinzo Abe badly wants to remedy.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Last month's general election in Japan filled nearly 80% of the seats in the lower house with politicians willing to amend the country's pacifist constitution, a long-cherished dream of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "Opportunities of time have been vouchsafed by heaven," said Seiichi Eto, a special adviser to the prime minister, using words that recall a famous quote from an ancient Chinese philosopher.

If not heaven, voters were overwhelmingly on Abe's side, and the prime minister was well aware of that throughout his campaign. "I have a better feeling than last time," he told aides during his 12-day campaign covering 22 prefectures across the country. "I have an especially good feeling about high school students. The only question left is whether they will actually vote."

Abe was speaking after posing with some of his teenage fans for smartphone selfies.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party won 284 of the 465 seats in the House of Representatives, defying a Nikkei estimate of around 260. The balance of power in the lower chamber of parliament is largely unchanged from before the election. But the opposition is fractured. The Democratic Party, previously the largest opposition party, has split into three: the Constitutional Democratic Party, Kibo no To (the Party of Hope) and independents.

Some LDP members had feared that the party could lose ground because of a few controversial bills that Abe pushed into law -- government secrecy legislation, an amendment to the national security law allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense and a so-called conspiracy bill.

The controversial laws ended up exposing a rift between the opposition's liberal and conservative camps. Also, Abe was emboldened by the sudden rise of the Party of Hope weeks before the election as well as other groups more sympathetic to his plans for the constitution.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Oct. 23.

Now the prime minister is filling in a new political calendar to make good on his promise to amend the constitution in 2020.

Though Abe has enough support in the lower house to call a referendum on constitutional revision, it may take some time to build a "consensus" on which part of the constitution to amend. "The plan," a person close to the prime minister said, "is to first discuss constitutional revision based on an LDP plan with various parties in the ordinary Diet session, which convenes in January. Abe should get re-elected as LDP leader for the third time in September next year, and talks should accelerate during the extraordinary session in the fall. Then in the 2019 ordinary session, due to begin in January of that year, Abe should finally propose the amendment."

Lessons from Brexit

"Coupling the referendum with an upper house election in the summer of 2019 is a strong possibility," said an LDP member close to the prime minister. Without that, a no vote "would mean the government would have to resign en masse," an LDP official said. In the U.K., for example, David Cameron had to step down as prime minister after calling for a referendum on whether the country should remain in the European Union; a majority of British voters elected to leave.

In Italy, Matteo Renzi made a similar gamble and lost.

But some LDP members believe that if a referendum and an upper house election were held simultaneously, Abe could survive even if the referendum fails -- provided LDP candidates win enough seats to allow the prime minister to claim a mandate to continue.

Another possibility is to add a lower house election to the mix. In this scenario, the next lower house election, penciled in for October 2021, would be moved up by dissolving the chamber.

Some in the LDP may call for an early dissolution to keep the party's local organizations active after nationwide local elections are held in the spring of 2019. Since local politicians tend to become less active once their own elections are over, a three-way summer election could be called for as a way to avoid lethargy.

Abe has made clear his intention to enact a new constitution in 2020. If hopes for a referendum in 2019 fade, he will lose the trust of his fellow conservatives. Yet there is no guarantee that long discussions between the ruling and opposition camps will find common ground. It is especially unclear if a proposal to add language to Article 9 to clarify the existence of the Self-Defense Forces -- something Abe feels passionate about -- can gain enough support from voters in a referendum.

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