The Road to Constitutional Amendment Gets That Much Rockier
It was September 20 in the 8th floor hall in LDP headquarters. When his victory in the LDP presidential elections was announced, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded to the applause by standing up and raising his right hand, but he said not a word and his expression was stony. He hadn’t been expecting that Ishiba would do so well in the party member vote, so it was also the moment that clouds gathered over the prospects for his proposed constitutional amendments.
It was September 20 in the 8th floor hall in LDP headquarters. When his victory in the LDP presidential elections was announced, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded to the applause by standing up and raising his right hand, but he said not a word and his expression was stony. He hadn't been expecting that Ishiba would do so well in the party member vote, so it was also the moment that clouds gathered over the prospects for his proposed constitutional amendments.
The party presidential elections contested 810 votes, comprising 405 Diet member votes and 405 party member votes. The results of the ballot count saw Abe take 553 votes, or 69 percent of the total. Rival candidate and former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba won 254 votes, or 31 percent. On the surface, Abe scored a resounding victory with twice the number of Ishiba's votes. In particular, 329 out of 405 Diet member votes went to Abe, or 82 percent. In addition to Abe's own Hosoda faction, the Aso, Nikai and Iwada factions also threw their lot in with Abe at an early stage, locking in the Prime Minister's advantage.
However, eyes were more on the party member vote, where Abe scored 242 votes to Ishiba's 181. At 55 percent against 45 percent, Ishiba did remarkably well. The Abe camp had originally aimed to capture more than 70 percent of the party member vote, keeping Ishiba to less than 30 percent. Given that expectation, Abe too must have been considerably shaken at the strength of Ishiba's performance.
Back on 3 May 2017, Abe sent a video message to a right-wing group advocated maintaining the existing Article 9 but adding clear acknowledgement of the existence of Japan's Self-Defense Forces. The LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution (Revision Headquarters) responded by presenting prior to the annual party conference in March 2017 a draft clause—“Article 9.2”—stating that “the Self-Defense Forces will be maintained as an organization with force existing at the minimum necessary level for self-defense.” This was strongly resisted by Ishiba, who wants to do away with the second paragraph of Article 9 stating that war potential will never be maintained and that the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized. As a result, the proposal was left in the hands of the Revision Headquarters, and LDP party convention approval was shelved.
Because of this history, Abe deliberately made Article 9 a point of issue in the LDP presidential elections and challenged Ishiba to take part in the debate. Abe's strategy was to use a resounding victory to quash Ishiba's argument on constitutional revision, opening the way for significant progress with LDP procedures in line with Abe's position. However, Ishiba's strong performance in the member vote represents a major diversion in Abe's constitutional amendment track.
According to a veteran member of the Lower House who supported Abe, this indicates a real shift away from Abe among party members. The reason for the shift is the strong distrust fostered by Abe's failure to provide a convincing explanation in relation to the Moritomo and Kake Gakuen scandals.
Succession of miscalculations
The LDP candidate losing to a non-LDP candidate in the Okinawa gubernatorial elections held on 30 September, 10 days after the LDP presidential race, also hit Abe hard.
The hot debate in the Okinawa elections was over the transfer of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko in Naha City. In the end, Denny Tamaki, who stepped into the shoes of previous Governor, Takeshi Onaga (who passed away in August) to oppose the transfer, took over 396,000 votes, soundly defeating the LDP-backed candidate, former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima. Despite the LDP and Komeito both throwing their weight behind Sakima's campaign, exit polls by Jiji Press and other companies indicated that 70 percent of non-affiliated voters cast their ballots for Tamaki. Non-affiliated voters will also play a major role in determining the outcome of national elections. A number of LDP party members have suggested that Abe isn't the right face for the LDP campaign.
Toning down constitutional revision
Now in his third term as LDP president, Abe can only remain in his post until September 2021 at latest. What he most wants to achieve in his last three years is constitutional revision. According to one member of the Abe camp, Abe had intended to use the results of the presidential race to “take the offensive in moving constitutional revision forward.”
However, following a succession of miscalculations—Abe's struggle for party support in the presidential elections and the LDP-backed candidate's defeat in the Okinawa gubernatorial elections—Abe has been forced to rethink his single-minded pursuit of constitutional amendment.
At a press briefing after the party personnel and Cabinet reshuffle on 2 October, Abe noted that unless he could put forward good, solid language, there would be no progress with either winning over Komeito or gaining the understanding of the public.
Clearly, Komeito stands as the biggest hurdle between Abe and changes to the Constitution, which is why Abe had planned to consult with Komeito on not only clear acknowledgement of the Self-Defense Forces in Article 9, but also three other amendments—the establishment of a state of emergency clause, eliminating the merged constituencies created to correct the vote-value disparity in the Lower House elections, and improving and strengthening education—so that those clauses on which agreement was reached could be put to the constitution commissions in both houses. However, because Komeito's main support group Soka Gakkai is strongly opposed to Abe's constitutional amendment trajectory, the party is refusing to even sit down at the table with LDP to discuss constitutional issues.
If Abe had been more successful in the LDP presidential election and the LDP-backed candidate had won the Okinawa gubernatorial elections, Abe might have had the option of exploring consultation with Komeito, but his 2 October comment suggests that, given the current situation, he has abandoned the idea of coordinating with Komeito during the current extraordinary Diet session to instead prioritize finalizing the LDP's four constitutional amendments and present these to the Diet as an independent LDP initiative. This represents a clear toning-down of his previous line.
LDP constitutional amendment ambitions strengthen
At the same time, Abe's picks for the top LDP positions have created strong momentum toward completing an LDP amendment proposal. He has appointed revision proponent Hakubun Shimomura as chairman of the Revision Headquarters, the institution spearheading discussion on the party proposal, while Ishiba supporter Wataru Takeshita has been replaced by Abe's close aide and former Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Katsunobu Kato as head of the General Council which will approve the revision proposal.
Koichi Hagiuda was reappointed as LDP Executive Acting Secretary-General, who is in charge of party affairs in general, while former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada becomes Chief Deputy Secretary-General. Both are hardcore supporters of constitutional revision whose thinking is aligned with that of the Prime Minister.
Abe has created this lineup to accelerate debate within the party without relying on prior coordination with komeito. The LDP is apparently considering presenting an independent proposal for constitutional revision to the constitutional commissions of both houses during the current extraordinary Diet session.
However, the Constitutional Democratic Party and other opposition parties have made their opposition to the LDP's proposed constitutional amendments very clear. They have refused to engage in deliberations on the proposed amendments to the National Referendum Law aimed at expanding opportunities to vote. Komeito's refusal to engage in prior consultation with the LDP also arises partly in response to this situation on the other side of the floor.
Same-day elections in both houses also a possibility
Entering his third term as party president, the cards seem to be stacked higher than ever against Abe's cherished constitutional amendments. Abe, however, is sticking to his guns, partly because of the administration's ultra-conservatives support base which is strongly behind constitutional amendment, and also because those politicians from the LDP, Komeito and elsewhere in both houses who support or are prepared to accept constitutional amendment still have more than two thirds of the seats needed to table a constitutional amendment bill.
However, the LDP is expected to struggle at the Lower House elections next summer, and the constitutional amendment camp could well lose that two-thirds majority. If this happens, Abe will lose the solid footing he needs to pursue constitutional revision, but there simply isn't enough time to finish presenting a bill to the Diet before the Lower House elections. Some parties are therefore forecasting that Abe will suggest holding elections for both houses on the same day to boost voter turnout and avoid losing that two-thirds majority in the lower house.
Of course, if he still manages to lose a large number of seats in either house, Abe will probably be forced to resign as Prime Minister. Through to next summer will be crunch time for Abe's constitutional revision trajectory.
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.