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PM Abe’s Article 9 revision proposal aims at leaving legacy, dividing opposition

In his video message on May 3, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed adding an explicit provision on the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Article 9 of the Constitution while leaving Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Article untouched. In its May 2017 issue [published in April], FACTA predicted that Abe would go on the offensive regarding constitutional revision, and the monthly magazine had even predicted in its November 2016 issue that Abe would propose the addition of a new Paragraph 3 to Article 9.


The proposal by Abe has not been discussed either at the Commissions on the Constitution of the two houses of the Diet or inside the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). While this would not be fully satisfactory to the rightist forces supporting Abe, they are unlikely to oppose him on this.


An LDP Diet member notes that Abe’s proposal amounts to a “declaration of his strong determination to leave constitutional revision behind as his legacy.”


In fact, adding a Paragraph 3 to Article 9 was originally proposed by former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and other pro-constitutional revision members of the Democratic Party (DP). Tetsuo Ito, a member of the policy committee of the powerful rightist group Nippon Kaigi [Japan Conference] and an adviser of Abe, had also long advocated this as a way to divide the forces favoring the preservation of the Constitution.


Although the DP under Renho has sought to form an opposition united front under the slogan of “blocking constitutional revision under the Abe administration,” former State Minister of Defense Akihisa Nagashima has deserted the party and former Secretary General Goshi Hosono has announced his own constitutional revision proposals and resigned as the party’s deputy president.


LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura told reporters: “It is indeed very ambitious to take up Article 9, which is considered the most difficult issue in constitutional revision.” He admitted that the Prime Minister is keen on leaving behind a historical legacy and explained Abe’s thinking as follows: “Retaining Paragraphs 1 and 2 but adding a provision on the SDF would be the most moderate way of going about it. This is a proposal that is the same as or close to Komeito’s proposal to ‘add’ new constitutional provisions. Many DP members will be hard put to find a reason to oppose it.” He thus made no secret of the fact that one purpose of Abe’s proposal is to divide the opposition.


In other words, the crux of the proposal to add a Paragraph 3 is for Abe to go down in history as “the politician who changed the Constitution” and to divide the opposition in order to maintain his hold on power. He would thus kill two birds with one stone.


Abe’s setting the goal of promulgating a new constitution by 2020 is also perceived by the majority in Nagatacho to be a declaration that he intends to stay in power until then.


Submitting motions for constitutional revision will require a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet. At present, forces favoring constitutional revision control a two-thirds majority, but it will not be easy to maintain this majority after the next election (the term of office of the current House of Representatives members ends in December 2018; the next House of Councillors election is in summer 2019). Therefore, the logical thing to do is to submit the motions next year.


Since the law stipulates that a referendum must be held from 60 to 180 days after constitutional revision motions are submitted, there will be no need to worry about maintaining a two-thirds majority after the motions are submitted, meaning that Abe can dissolve the Lower House anytime he wants.


It appears that the most realistic political schedule would be: submission of motions in spring or summer 2018 and holding a referendum together with a Lower House election in fall or winter 2018, after the LDP presidential election in September, where Abe is expected to be reelected, possibly without a vote. This means that Abe can serve until 2021, after the Olympics are held and a new constitution is promulgated.


Holding the referendum and the general election simultaneously would be very convenient for dividing the opposition. If the provision on the SDF – which is supported by the people – becomes the main point of contention in the election, even DP members opposed to constitutional revision will find it hard to form a united front with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which is staunchly against constitutional revision. This is all the more true if tensions rise regarding the North Korea situation.


There are estimates that an opposition united front including the JCP would cost the LDP about 60 seats in the next Lower House election. If the LDP loses a considerable number of seats, even if it is still able to retain a majority, the party will be dejected and its leadership weakened. However, even in such a situation, achieving constitutional revision in a referendum will more than cover for the loss.


FACTA speculates that Abe may even opt to step down before the 2020 Olympic Games after taking care of a number of major political events next year: the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, the submission of constitutional revision motions, the referendum, the LDP  presidential election, the Lower House election, and the Emperor’s abdication. This would make 2019 his “grand finale.” This also offers other advantages: he would not have to worry about the Upper House election, the slowdown of Abenomics, making a decision on another consumption tax increase, or the volatile international situation. There is also the issue of his own health problems. (Summary)

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