NEWS FROM JAPAN - AMENDING ARTICLE 9 AT THE TOP OF THE AGENDA AHEAD OF THE JULY ELECTIONS
Since the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has been increasingly frank about his plan to amend Japan’s Constitution, including its war-renouncing Article 9, ahead of the Upper House election expected to take place this summer.
Constitutional revision on top of the election race
Following the contentious Cabinet reinterpretation of Article 9 in July 2014, the passing of controversial security bills in the Diet in September 2015 and the ongoing movement of public opposition, many observers expected the issue to be put to rest for some time.
However, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has made clear that he wants to push his long-cherished goal of constitutional amendment forward. Speaking at a New Year’s press conference on January 4, he announced that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would “appeal for [revision of the constitution] strongly during the House of Councillors election campaign, just as we have thus far.” Abe further stated that he intends to include a promise to revise the Constitution as one of the key elements of the LDP electoral platform. “We will openly and squarely call for public support for revising the Constitution, which is one of our party’s main policy goals, to pave the way for amendment,” reiterated LDP Vice President Komura Masahiko, at an event celebrating Japan’s National Foundation in February.
In fact, Abe has even expressed his resolve to realize amendment during his term in office, which will end in September 2018.
“It has been the policy principle of the Liberal Democratic Party since its foundation to amend the Constitution, and we campaigned for constitutional amendment in the previous Lower House election (in December 2014),” Abe said at a Budget Committee meeting of the House of Councillors on March 3. “As such, I, as the party president, want to pursue the goal.”
With two and a half years left in office, it will not be an easy task for Abe to complete the process of constitutional amendment in such a short timeframe. As a matter of fact, a number steps must be followed, including establishing a broad consensus between the ruling and opposition parties in principle and on a list of specific points of revision, obtaining agreement on detailed language, and finally securing a majority of support in a national referendum that can only take place after a preparation period of 60 to 180 days after the votes in the two Diet chambers.
Thus, this announcement took many by surprise, including even members of the ruling coalition. Some have expressed concerns that pushing too hard, too fast could result in an unwanted electoral backlash. “We are worried that Abe’s eagerness could give opposition parties now in disarray over their policies a rallying point and that his comments could be exploited” in the House of Councillors election this summer, reacted Urushibara Yoshio, Chair of Komeito's Central Secretariat.
Securing a majority
Indeed, to go ahead with the process of constitutional amendment, the ruling coalition needs to have a two-third majority in both Houses of the Diet. Even if the ruling parties already controls two-third of the seats in the Lower Chamber, they would still need a “landslide victory” in the upcoming election in the Upper House election.
Conceding that “it will be virtually impossible for our party alone to secure a two-thirds majority in both Diet houses”, Abe is seeking cooperation not only within the ruling bloc but also with other parties, notably pro-amendment political forces such as Initiatives from Osaka (Osaka Ishin no Kai) and other like-minded lawmakers.
Rumor has it that Prime Minister Abe is even contemplating dissolving the Lower House for a snap election at the same time as the poll for the Upper House. “If we seriously aim to amend the Constitution, we have no choice but to hold Lower and Upper house elections on the same day and aim for an overwhelming victory,” a LDP member said.
On the other aisle of the political spectrum, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Innovation Party, in a strategic move aimed at countering the push, decided to join forces and merge into a unified opposition party that was launched at the end of March.
According to its draft platform, the new party, named Minshin To (The Democratic Party, in English) will “firmly safeguard constitutionalism based on freedom and democracy,” preserve Japan’s commitment to an exclusively defense-oriented security policy, and envision a “future-oriented constitution”. Among its priorities, Minshin To intends to abrogate the controversial security bills adopted in September. However, it does not appear opposed to constitutional amendment as such, but rather to the kind foreseen by the administration in place.
But which parts of the Constitution does Abe want to rewrite?
Rewriting the Constitution has always been Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s declared political objective. In order to achieve his goal, he initially chose to pursue a strategy of calculated vagueness.
Indeed, on numerous occasions, Abe tried to avoid discussion on what specific provision he intends to revise. Speaking on a Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) television program on January 10 for instance, he claimed: “As for which provisions (to focus on), I believe discussions will deepen in the days ahead.” A few weeks later, at a Lower House Budget Committee session, Abe even argued he “would like to first revise clauses in the Constitution, which a two-thirds majority in the Diet will agree to rewrite.”
To that end, the administration is repeatedly calling for a deepened public debate and has initiated discussions on less-contentious aspects, notably on adding a clause in the constitution on emergency situations such as major disasters. But most critics are well aware that this discussion over “emergency situations” is only a first step – a way of testing the public’s mood toward further constitutional amendments on the more divisive issues.
In 2012, when Abe returned to power, the LDP put forward a draft amendment of the constitution that proposed a number of such controversial changes. This draft continues to be the basis of Abe’s vision for constitutional revision. The document includes, among other proposals, removing Article 97, which guarantees fundamental human rights and the supremacy of the constitution; increasing the Emperor’s powers; limiting the freedom of speech "for the purpose of interfering public interest and public order”, curtailing the independence of the judiciary from political control, and other changes
that represent a serious setback in terms of democracy and human rights.
Target: Article 9
It makes no doubt that Abe has war-renouncing Article 9 on the top of his mind, and in recent weeks, he has made this increasingly clear.
On February 3, while addressing a Diet session, Abe referred to the LDP draft document as the basis for his plans to amend Article 9. "Our party has indicated a form for the Constitution we should have in the future, such as clarifying the right of self-defense and stipulating the establishment of a new organization for self-defense," he said.
Indeed, the 2012 LDP draft document replaces the second paragraph, which states that armed “forces and other war potential shall never be maintained" and instead sets up a “National Defense Force”. It also adds a third paragraph, by which the new force is granted the mandate not only to defend the territory from a foreign attack, but also to participate in peacekeeping operations, maintain domestic public order and protect individual rights.
During the same session, he spoke of the contradiction between the existence of the Self-Defense Forces and the ban on Japan maintaining armed forces, to argue “there is a prevailing belief that this situation must be eliminated.”
The remark came in response to a question posed by his close aide Inada Tomomi, who referred to the conclusion of a July 2015 Asahi Shimbun survey carried among Japanese constitutional scholars and legal experts. The poll found that 63% of the respondents believed the presence of SDF troops either “violates” or “may violate” the Constitution. At the same time, 98% also pointed out that the new security bills that were being considered in the Diet either “violate” or “may violate” the Constitution.
Yet, in order to ram through his contentious bills, Abe then chose to ignore some of the findings of this very survey, by which a large majority of constitutional scholars said the legislation violated the constitution. He also ignored the widespread public opposition and overturned the constitutional interpretation of successive Cabinets.
On March 1, in a Diet session, Abe further suggested that the Constitution should be amended to give Japan the power to fully exercise the right to collective self-defense, based on the view that Japan “can exercise the rights it holds under international law as necessary to protect the lives of the people of Japan.”
Before Abe’s Cabinet re-interpreted Article 9 in July 2014 and passed new security bills in September 2015, the government had maintained for decades that Japan had the right to collective self-defense under international law but could not exercise it under its war-renouncing Constitution. Under the new legislation, Japan is now authorized to exercise collective self-defense, albeit only to defend the United States or other friendly nations under armed attack when Japan faces “a situation that threatens its survival.” It further geographically limits such authorization to the Korean Peninsula and in the East China Sea.
Thus, by suggesting that Article 9 should be amended to give Japan the power to fully exercise the right to collective self-defense, Abe seems to now want to remove such restraints.
Putting the cart before the horse
Many critics have forcefully condemned Abe’s methods and lines of argument for changing the constitution. The Asahi Shimbun, in a series of editorials, has qualified them of “perverse” arguments or “dangerous game plan.”
Changing the constitution cannot be a goal in itself and the strategy cannot be to start an amendment process with whatever will garner the needed support.
Yet for Abe, this is part of his agenda "to reclaim Japanese sovereignty" as "[the constitution] was created during the occupation period, and some parts are not in line with the times."
Considering revising specific parts of the constitution to address perceived shortcomings may not be absurd. But establishing a deadline for amending the constitution without having garnered public support and understanding for a specific target is not a way to proceed.
Picture credit: Reuters