Saturday, September 22, 2018

Constitutional revision in Japan by 2020?

Emperor Hirohito signing
1947 Constitution
Don’t count on it

EastAsiaForum, 13 September 2018

by Michael Cucek, Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History at Temple University Japan and an Adjunct Professor of Social Science at Waseda University.

Revision or amendment of the 1947 US-drafted Constitution of Japan has been the aim of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s existence since the day it was founded. Yet in 60 years of nearly unbroken rule, the party has failed to table a single draft proposal for a constitutional amendment.

Scepticism is justified regarding the vow Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made to Nippon Kaigi — a group that advocates constitutional revision — that before the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, he would lead the National Diet and the people to vote for the first amendment of the post-war constitution.

Abe has advantages in this endeavour that his previous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidents did not. His LDP–Komeito ruling coalition holds over two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives and has held on to this supermajority the coalition through two successive elections. Together with allied micro-parties, independents and revision-sympathetic conservatives of the Ishin no Kai party, the ruling coalition also secured a two-thirds supermajority in the House of Councillors (the upper house) in 2016.

These two supermajorities guarantee the first two requirements for the passage of a constitutional amendment: a more than two-thirds vote of approval in both houses of the Diet.

None of Abe’s projected opponents in the scheduled September 2018 LDP presidential election are noted opponents of revision. Indeed, former defence minister and LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba, Abe’s most viable opponent in an intra-party power struggle, desires much more radical revisions than Abe and his allies have been considering.

Crucially for a party driven by factionalism, the LDP’s internal constitutional revision apparatus is in the grasp of Abe loyalists. An overlooked achievement was Abe’s wresting the chairmanship of the LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision of the Constitution away from Hajime Funada. Funada had used control of the revision committee as means of hobbling the initiatives of his fellow party members. Buoyed by the great victory in the October 2017 election, Abe shoved Funada aside, replacing him with a more senior and supportive leader: Hiroyuki Hosoda, the head of Abe’s own faction within the LDP.

But things are not so sanguine outside the Party. A unique feature of Abe’s years in power has been a lack of voter enthusiasm for his policies. While public opinion poll numbers in support of the Abe cabinet have fluctuated in between 40 and 60 per cent — remarkably high for any Japanese administration, particularly one in its sixth year — the numbers supporting his administration’s policies have almost never risen above 50 per cent. These approval ratings usually hover in the mid-30s, with most voters either doubtful about or actively opposed to constitutional change. Expending time and effort justifying changes has proved counterproductive for Abe: support for policy proposals has consistently declined the more that Abe and his lieutenants have tried to explain them.

The combination of these two phenomena — initial low support for Abe policies and declining support for those policies over time — seems deadly for constitutional revision. Article 96 of the constitution requires a national referendum to be held on any proposed amendment or revision, and a strict majority of votes must be in favour of the proposal for it to pass. Any significant amendment will start out with less than 50 per cent support, if the history of the Abe cabinet is any guide, meaning that it will have an essentially zero chance of surviving the referendum process. And polling has shown that at least 60 per cent of voters do not want the constitution altered under Abe.

Of the four main constitutional revision proposals that Abe and his allies have considered, one (the emergency powers revision) is seen as too controversial and has been shelved. Two others (free education through high school and the assignment of at least two senators to each House of Councillors electoral district) are matters of legislation, not constitutional revision. Indeed, the senator assignment issue was resolved by legislation in the recently concluded Diet regular session.

This leaves the proposal to add a sentence to Article 9 — the Peace Article — constitutionalising the Japan Self-Defense Forces. This is the amendment proposal that many voters fear.

First, this proposal is completely unnecessary. The Self-Defense Forces are broadly admired, and their constitutionality is accepted by nearly every part of Japan’s political spectrum. Second, putting the amendment to the voters could backfire spectacularly. A ‘No’ vote in the first ever constitutional revision referendum would force Abe’s immediate resignation. It would also bury, possibly for perpetuity, further attempts at revision.

Finally, a rejection would be the equivalent of finding that the Self-Defense Forces are unconstitutional. Abe has testified that his government would ignore a referendum rejection and continue to consider the Self-Defense Forces constitutional, whatever the voters say. But given that a rejection would force his resignation, he and his team would not be in charge to make that decision.

Nevertheless, Abe promised at a conference in August that he would add the extra sentence to Article 9. What is more, he said he wanted the amendment proposal through the Diet by the end of 2018.

Abe’s speech triggered a lot of speculation about his intentions. The conventional wisdom is that Abe is averse to career-ending challenges. His ignominious premature exit from his first term as prime minister in 2007 made him a more cautious and patient radical. He does not succumb to time pressures and never takes any stance on which his side does not have an overwhelming chance of prevailing.

The question revolves therefore around what Abe means when he says he ‘wants’ to have a constitutional amendment before the year is out. We all ‘want’ many things, most of which we cannot have. Abe’s most fervent supporters want a constitutional amendment, now. Abe seems to have merely been playing to the crowd.

Besides, Abe knows of a precedent on pushing against public opinion — one he does not want to follow. In 1960, Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi staked his premiership on a deeply unpopular renewal of the Japan–US Security Treaty. Kishi lost power because of his commitment to deliver the renewal. Abe is not likely to follow in his grandfather’s self-sacrificial path — not for a promise that the LDP has failed to honour for 63 years.

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