CDPJ’s change of stance helps break debate deadlock

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Clockwise from top left, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano, Nippon Ishin no Kai Secretary General Nobuyuki Baba, Democratic Party for the People head Yuichiro Tamaki and the Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii are seen in this composite image.

This is the third and last installment in a series that explores the actions and aims of the political parties on constitutional revision.

The difference in conviction among the opposition parties when it comes to constitutional debates has become palpable.

It all started when the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) made fresh starts in September last year. They had wanted to merge, but could not be united. One reason for the break was the difference in their stances toward revising the Constitution.

The draft revision on the National Referendum Law was passed at the House of Representatives’ Commission on the Constitution on Thursday. But there had been a bumpy road for the opposition parties along the way.

On the afternoon of April 21, the CDPJ’s Ikuo Yamahana, who heads the opposition party bloc in the lower house’s Commission on the Constitution, met with three leaders from other opposition parties in the conference room of the House of Representatives’ Office Building 2. The Nippon Ishin no Kai was not there.

“Tomorrow on the 22nd, we should agree to hold a vote on the draft revision on the National Referendum Law, and move on to the next discussion,” said the DPFP member at the meeting, adamant that the bloc should go along with the Liberal Democratic Party’s push to hold the vote.

However, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which is against constitutional revision, opposed holding a meeting of the commission itself.

In the end, Yamahana concluded the matter by saying, “We can agree to hold a commission meeting, but do not share the DPFP’s thinking on holding the vote.” Yamahana’s decision leaned toward the JCP, rather than the party that the CDPJ was once willing to merge.

Behind the CDPJ’s move is the lower house election to be held by the autumn. While the CDPJ changed its stance at that point and said it would support the revision bill with certain conditions, it wants to keep the JCP from withdrawing its cooperation in the election. If the commission meets, the JCP now says it will attend.

“The party is kowtowing to the JCP,” a veteran CDPJ member said, echoing a common refrain within the party, and not just on matters involving the Constitution.

The CDPJ’s manifesto calls for it to “seriously engage in future-oriented constitutional discussions from the perspective of deepening constitutionalism,” but the party has yet to start drawing up a draft amendment.

Party leader Yukio Edano did announce a proposal for revising Article 9 of the Constitution in a 2013 article in the weekly magazine Bungei Shunju. He claims to be “pro-amendment,” but also says, “I have no interest in discussing constitutional reforms that have no chance of ever happening.”

The DPFP, on the other hand, is actively participating in discussions on the issue. In December last year, the party announced a list of agenda points for drawing up draft amendments to the Constitution. In view of the progress of digitization in society, the party is proposing the establishment of basic rights to data, and plans to call for constitutional revision during the upcoming election campaign.

“It is inconceivable to not discuss matters involving the Constitution,” DPFP head Yuichiro Tamaki told reporters on April 15. “I hope our friends at the CDPJ will see things that way.”

Nippon Ishin no Kai, which leans positively on revising the Constitution, has already drafted a bill calling for free education, reform of the structure of governance, and the establishment of a constitutional court.

“Raising issues helps deepen understanding of the Constitution among the public,” Ishin Secretary General Nobuyuki Baba told reporters on April 22.

The spread of the novel coronavirus has raised constitutional questions. What measures can the government and the Diet take in the event of a major disaster, an epidemic or some other emergency? The term of a lawmaker is stipulated in the Constitution, and if an election cannot be held due to an emergency, we will be left with no lawmakers. Problems like this have been left untouched.

The CDPJ had maintained that it would “not discuss [the revision] under Mr. Abe,” shutting the door during Shinzo Abe’s tenure as prime minister. Discussions in the lower house’s commission on the content of the Constitution have hardly deepened.

Even if a two-thirds majority in each house of the Diet approves the constitutional revision, it still requires a majority in a national referendum. The LDP has been pressing the CDPJ to “at least explain in the commission the reasons for being cautious about amending the Constitution.”

A senior LDP member said, “When the revision bill is passed, discussions on the Constitution will begin in earnest. The CDPJ has been using the bill like a breakwater against that.”

A junior CDPJ lawmaker expressed concerns about public perception, saying, “It might invite criticism during the lower house election if we are viewed as running away from the constitutional debate.”

The number of hardline constitutionalist factions that would never allow amendments is said to have decreased. But elections and the political situation have tied down the largest opposition party.