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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Diet clears path to referendum on Constitution

Bill's passage threatens to upend war-renouncing Article 9, opponents say


Staff writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cleared a major hurdle to revising the war-renouncing Constitution on Monday as the Diet approved a bill to establish procedures for a national referendum to amend the charter.

Amid outcry from the opposition parties, the bill was passed in the Upper House with a majority vote from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito. The referendum law will take effect in three years.

Protesters against revising the Constitution gathered outside the Diet in the morning, voicing their opposition and anger over the bill.

"I am deeply disappointed and would like to express strong objection" to the bill, said Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party. "The (referendum) law will in reality destroy the Constitution," Fukushima told reporters in the Diet following the bill's passage.

Fukushima also expressed anger over the short deliberation period in the Upper House — barely one month since the bill passed the Lower House on April 13.

Like the other opposition parties, the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan also voted against the ruling coalition's bill. It submitted its own version to the current Diet session, but it was not voted on. The main difference between the two bills was that the ruling bloc limited the referendum to the Constitution while the DPJ broadened the range to include other important laws.

"The DPJ's bill is 95 percent the same as (that of) the LDP," said LDP Upper House lawmaker Yoichi Masuzoe after the bill was passed. "We could not deliberate (on the bill) endlessly, and while it may not be perfect, I believe it was appropriate to go ahead with the vote."

Article 96 of the Constitution stipulates that any changes to the charter must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, followed by a simple majority in a national referendum. But no legal framework to hold a referendum had been established in the 60 years since the enactment of the national charter.

The idea of holding a referendum lay dormant for 60 years because "there are people among the general public who fear that revising the Constitution will turn (Japan back) into a prewar militant nation," said Hideo Otake, a political science professor at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts. That fear is based on the notion that "those trying to revise the Constitution are rightists."

During the previous extraordinary Diet session, Abe, a conservative, already succeeded in passing a controversial education bill aimed at instilling patriotism in the classroom and another that elevated the Defense Agency to ministry status.

In the current legislative session, Abe has pushed the referendum bill, repeatedly stressing his intention to revise the Constitution, which was drafted during the Allied Occupation.

It may be a long time before any revisions are carried out. To get a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Diet, the LDP will need the cooperation of the DPJ, whose members are divided over revising the war-renouncing Article 9.

"I believe (approval of the referendum bill) will make it seem like Abe is taking charge," Otake said "But without the cooperation of the DPJ, (Abe) cannot revise the Constitution."

He added that constitutional revision may lead to a political reshuffle, with conservatives within the DPJ joining the LDP or liberals in the LDP leaving the party.

With a little more than a month left in this Diet session, remaining bills include the extension of the special law that allows the Self-Defense Forces to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq and three bills related to education reform. However, critics say that with the passage of the referendum bill, lawmakers will now turn their attention to the upcoming Upper House election.

For both the LDP and the DPJ, the election in July will be a key battle. Out of the chamber's 242 seats, the LDP only has 109 and maintains a majority through the 24 seats of its coalition partner New Komeito. The DPJ, on the other hand, holds 83.



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