May 12, 2017 12:00 pm JST

Japan's Abe ready to go for broke on constitutional changes

Like it or not, the prime minister seems to have a clear timetable in mind

ITARU OISHI, Nikkei senior staff writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a conference on Japan's constitution in Tokyo on May 1, as one of his predecessors, Yasuhiro Nakasone, listens.

TOKYO -- After years of biding his time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is poised to make a serious attempt at revising the country's constitution. 

The changes he envisions would bestow constitutional recognition on the Self-Defense Forces, as well as enshrine tuition-free higher education. And he has made it clear: He wants the job done by 2020.

To have the new document kick in on day one of that year, Japan would have to hold a constitutional referendum by the end of 2018, to allow for a year of preparation. 

Let's take a closer look at Abe's timetable for making it happen.

Signs of seriousness

On May 1, two days before the Constitution Memorial Day holiday, Abe attended a conference on "the promotion of establishing a new constitution" at the Parliamentary Museum in Tokyo.

The annual event, hosted by pro-revision members of parliament, used to be called the conference "for the mutual determination to establish [Japan's] own constitution." In any case, Abe became the first sitting prime minister to attend.

Abe has been calling for constitutional changes since he was elected for his first go-round as prime minister, back in 2006. But since he returned to office in 2012, he put this goal on the back burner while he focused on consolidating his power base and rejuvenating the economy.

His appearance at the conference was a signal that he is finally ready to take the plunge. As if to hammer home his determination, he abruptly canceled plans to tour northern Europe following visits to Russia and the U.K., so he could be home in time for the event.

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

Why push for the changes now? There are at least two reasons. 

Political calculations

First, his pro-amendment supporters are growing impatient. Four years into his second premiership, Abe has checked off most of his policy to-do list. He has pushed through a state secrets law and new security legislation. Deliberations on revising the organized crime law are underway. Antsy conservatives now expect him to deliver on the constitution.

Second, Abe likely wants to act while he has the necessary seats.

The ruling coalition of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner Komeito -- along with pro-amendment opposition lawmakers -- currently holds two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Diet, or parliament. This is the result of four straight election victories in five years: lower house elections in 2012 and 2014, and upper house votes in 2013 and 2016.

Another general election will be held by December 2018, when the terms of lower chamber members expire.

As things stand, Abe's party is unlikely to be ousted from power. The Democratic Party -- the largest opposition force and the main group standing in the way of the constitutional revision -- is beset by low approval ratings.

Yet, political pundits do think the LDP will probably drop 20 to 40 seats, as voters grow tired of Abe and his government's unusual longevity. Some experts say the next election could be payback time for the LDP, whose sweeping victory in 2012 ushered in a wave of young, unskilled politicians. So there is a risk that the coalition could lose its two-thirds majority.

To be safe, Abe needs to pass a motion for a referendum on the constitution by December 2018.

But there are some tricky procedural matters to deal with as well.

The law demands a 60- to 180-day window of time between parliament voting on a referendum motion and the public casting their ballots. Just about everyone agrees that, should a referendum on the constitution come to pass, the full 180 days would be preferable. After all, it would be the first single-issue vote in Japanese history.

In other words, once the referendum has been called, it is likely to be held six months later.

Now consider that the constitutional motion will have to be submitted while parliament is in session. Technically, there will be four opportunities to do so 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 then next year's regular and extraordinary sessions.

It would be too hasty to initiate the process in the current session. In reality, Abe has three chances left.

Moreover, it is unlikely the government would submit the motion right at the start of a session. That means 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, the actual referendum is likely to be held next May or June, in December 2018 or January 2019, or in May or June 2019.

Mark your calendars

Considering all this, Abe's best bet would be to call for the referendum sometime around June 2018 and hold it that December. If the lower house has not already been dissolved, the referendum could even piggyback on the general election.

Article 96 of the constitution states that the ratification of amendments by the people "shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of all votes cast thereon, at a special referendum or at such election as the Diet shall specify." A "double election" is therefore allowed.

For Abe, this timetable would be ideal.

He will face an LDP leadership contest in September 2018. If the referendum has already been set, he could easily argue for retaining the leader who called it, at least until an answer is given. He would probably win the race by default.

Plus, that October, the government will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration -- the 1868 upheaval that brought back the Imperial throne and opened up the country. This is likely to stir patriotic sentiment among the public -- a surge of emotion that just might generate support for Abe's planned revision to Article 9, the constitution's controversial pacifist clause.

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

Losing the referendum would cost Abe his leadership. But that very risk adds to the appeal of bundling the referendum with the general election. While making the case, the prime minister would be able to say to the electorate: "Come on. You don't want to hand the reins to the Democratic Party, do you?"

Unignorable pitch

Passing the referendum motion is likely to take at least two Diet sessions -- one to narrow the list of items to be amended, and another to hammer out the details. 

Thus, Abe's immediate plan is likely to be:

  • Have constitutional commissions in both chambers accelerate the debate during the current session.
  • Sort out the referendum motion during the extraordinary session this fall.
  • Organize a vote on the motion during next year's ordinary session.

There is no doubt that his latest pitch for revising Article 9 to clarify the status of the SDF -- a pitch that cannot be ignored -- was carefully calculated to get the ball rolling, based on his preferred political timetable.

Like it or not, the prime minister has already charted his course for changing the nation's cornerstone document.

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