Clouds Gather over Prime Minister Abe's Constitutional Amendment Strategy
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to use his continued political dominance to win the Liberal Democratic Party leadership election for the third time in September and realize his long-cherished goal of constitutional amendment. However, clouds are gathering over that scenario.
The two political highlights in Japan in 2018 will be the September LDP leadership elections and the outcome of the constitutional amendment debate. The LDP's sweeping victory in the House of Councilors elections last fall ensured Abe's continued dominance, while Cabinet support ratings have since risen, the opposition has fallen into turmoil, and stock prices have held high. The Prime Minister aims to ride these developments to take out the LDP leadership election for the third time this September and realize his long-cherished goal of constitutional amendment. However, clouds are gathering over Abe's ultimate goal of changing the Japanese constitution.
Need for speed
When LDP party members from both houses of the Diet met for a joint plenary meeting in the morning of January 22 prior to convention of the next regular session of the Diet, Abe spoke as party leader when he stressed the need to realize constitutional revision, noting that “as a party platform ever since our party was formed, this has been under debate for a long time now. As politicians, we have a grave responsibility to make it a reality, and we have reached the time to do so.”
In his policy speech that afternoon, however, the Prime Minister only touched upon constitutional revision in closing and with a mildly-couched hope that “all political parties will bring concrete proposals for the Constitution to the Diet and deepen discussion on this matter.”
Abe's differentiation of position for these two occasions reflects the nature of Japan's political system. Under a parliamentary system, as the head of the administration, the Prime Minister may not engage directly in Diet debate when constitutional revision is being proposed, which is why he worked instead to coalesce LDP opinion ahead of his policy speech.
However, even if Abe takes the party leadership for the third time this September and wins three more years in his post, it might still not be enough time to realize constitutional revision. His comments at the joint plenary meeting reveal the Prime Minister's sense of urgency.
Unyielding on SDF reference
Particularly with next year crowded with important events—among them the April nationwide local elections, the new emperor's ascension to the throne in May, and the summer House of Councilors election—the Prime Minister is thought to be aiming to have a constitutional revision motion presented during the current Diet session or the fall extraordinary Diet session, holding the referendum within the requisite 60 to 180 days from the tabling of such a motion by next summer.
The House of Councilors election next summer is, however, may well have a major influence on the fate of constitutional revision, as 121 seats—half of the 242 total seats—will be up for reelection. Particularly given that the LDP captured a majority of 65 of the 121 seats at stake in the 2013 election, according to one staff member at the party's election headquarters, the expectation is of a backlash this time round, forcing a difficult contest.
If the pro-constitutional revision camp (the LDP, Komeito, and the opposition Japan Innovation Party) had lost their two-thirds majority of 162 seats in the 2016 House of Councilors election, revision momentum would probably have fizzled. Reflecting on this situation, one LDP executive revealed that “for Abe, next year's Upper House election will effectively be the deadline for constitutional revision.” Doubtless, this is the real intent behind Abe's strategy of treating constitutional revision as a foregone conclusion.
Sensitivity to Komeito
Going back to May 3 last year, Prime Minister Abe noted in a video message to the Constitutional Revision Promotion Forum that he wanted to have in place by 2020 a revised Constitution that keeps the two paragraphs of Article 9 in which Japan renounces war and commits to not maintaining armed forces with war potential, while also clearly acknowledging the existence of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF).
This takes on board the idea of adding a new paragraph to the Constitution as previously discussed by LDP coalition partner Komeito. Back when the LDP was in opposition in spring 2012, its original draft amendment arising out of discussion within the party was much more conservative, deleting the two paragraphs of Article 9 and inserting the establishment of “national defense forces.”
Abe's proposal prioritizes the Komeito suggestion at the expense of that 2012 version, which actually embodies the essence of the LDP's constitutional revision plan, in recognition of the fact that while Komeito presents itself as pro-revision, according to one Komeito member, “it is actually against amending the Constitution, and particularly Article 9.” The Prime Minister's determination to take a pragmatic line is clear in the rather blatant catering to Komeito sensitivities in his latest proposal.
Ishiba blocks the way
Another factor driving the new proposal above and beyond Komeito sensitivities is the difficulty which Abe is having in coalescing party opinion. The LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution (Revision Headquarters, headed by Hiroyuki Hosoda) is following Abe's wishes in trying to bring the party on board with the Prime Minister's proposal to add a paragraph providing grounds for the SDF while leaving the rest of the Constitution untouched, but a group around former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba has proved recalcitrant.
This resistance within the party resulted in the Revision Headquarters presenting both proposals in the report which it put together at the end of last year, but efforts to close the divide have met with little success so far this year. Following Abe's January 22 speech, Ishiba warned the press that there were still “major differences” within the LDP. On February 5, he again sought to check the Prime Minister's haste to achieve constitutional amendment, noting that while the idea of only including the SDF reference “might be easy for people to swallow,” he did not believe that it was the right course for the LDP to take.
A head-on offensive?
Despite Ishiba's resistance, the Revision Headquarters plans to create a draft revision that includes the SDF reference at the LDP convention on March 25 to then present to the constitutional councils of both houses of the Diet. In other words, the plan is to make a head-on offensive, clearly with the intention of removing at this juncture the possibility of the Constitution becoming a point of contention between Abe and Ishiba as the politician viewed as Abe's most potent rival in the September party leadership elections.
The problem is that while the public opinion surveys undertaken by the various media agencies show growing support for constitutional amendment, the majority of people don't want a motion to be rushed through the Diet. According to the public opinion poll taken by Jiji Press in December last year, 68.4 percent—in other words, almost 70 percent—of respondents were opposed to the idea of a constitutional amendment motion at the regular Diet session convening next January.
The fact that support ratings for Abe's Cabinet have recovered admirably from their nosedive last summer despite such public ambivalence may well be encouraging Abe's drive to achieve constitutional amendment. However, if those ratings should slip again for some reason, with nationwide local elections as well as the House of Councilors election in the offing just next year, Abe's obsession with constitutional revision is highly likely to meet with an eruption of dissatisfaction particularly from the party's local chapters.
Ultimately, then, the fate of constitutional amendment could well hinge on the Abe Cabinet's support ratings.
About the Author
Keisuke Yamada, Political Commentator, Jiji Press
Graduated from Sophia University in 1982 and joined Jiji Press. Served as a political reporter, a reporter for the newspaper's Washington Bureau, its political editor-in-chief, and the head of the Sendai Bureau before taking up his current post in July 2016.