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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Constitution referendum bill clears Lower House

Ruling bloc forces plenary vote; opposition foiled

Staff writer

In the face of strong protests from the opposition camp, the House of Representatives passed a bill Friday to set procedures for a national referendum to revise the Constitution.

The ruling coalition -- the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito -- rammed the bill through the Lower House plenary session Friday afternoon with a majority vote. The bill will be handed over to the Upper House for deliberation and is expected to be passed during the current Diet session.

The opposition parties had argued for more deliberations. The Thursday session of the Lower House Special Committee for Research on Constitution of Japan ended in a shouting match between the ruling and opposition camps as a vote on the bill was forced.

"A national referendum is an important issue and it should have been deliberated further, for the people and with the people," said Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan. "It is extremely regrettable that the deliberation was called off and a vote was forced without giving the general public a clear (picture) of the truth."

LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa said the opposition parties' behavior was "negative and unreasonable."

"The special committee deliberated (on the bill) for more than 100 hours and what is not enough about that?" Nakagawa asked. "The issue wasn't about the content, but undoubtedly based on party interests."

The Constitution, drafted in 1947 during the Allied Occupation, stipulates that there must be a two-thirds vote in both the Lower and Upper houses and a national referendum to make amendments. But the legal framework to establish the referendum has not been set.

During a committee hearing last week, Akira Momochi, professor of constitutional law at Nihon University, stressed the importance of the bill.

"The referendum bill, in line with other laws like the Diet Law and the Cabinet Law, is indispensable to (plans to change) the Constitution and to put it into effect," he said. "This bill should have been established when the Constitution was enacted (60 years ago)."

If the bill is approved by the Upper House, it will take effect within three years and enable Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to move onto his ultimate goal -- to revise the war-renouncing Constitution.

But Takeshi Sasaki, a professor of political science at Gakushuin University, noted more time will be needed to establish the ground rules for a referendum, including the minimum voting age.

The bill states that the voting age must be 18 and older. The original bill, submitted to the previous ordinary Diet, had stipulated age 20 and older. But the ruling bloc lowered the age in the revised version of the bill handed in to the Diet in March in an attempt to compromise with the DPJ, which had submitted its own version of the bill with the voting age of 18 and over.

"The bill affects not only the Public Office Election Law . . . but other laws, including the Civil Code and the Juvenile Law," Sasaki said. "This (referendum bill) is not the end but actually the beginning of further debate not just on the Constitution but also on other laws and systems."

Critics have also expressed concern that the bill has not set a minimum voter turnout rate for sake of referendum validity. Without it, the Constitution could be revised based on the will of only a small percentage of voters.

The voting date, according to the bill, will be set within 60 to 180 days after the Diet hands in proposals to revise the Constitution. The proposals must be submitted in accordance to individual themes.

The DPJ originally submitted its own referendum bill last May, but resubmitted it with several minor changes earlier this week.

The biggest difference between the two bills is that the ruling bloc limited the referendum to the Constitution, while the DPJ called for a wider range -- not just the Constitution but other important laws, including those pertaining to bioethics and the government.

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The Japan Times

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