Japan

Diet enacts revision to Japan’s law on referendums for constitutional reform

The Diet on Friday enacted a bill to make national referendums on constitutional amendments more convenient for voters.

The bill to revise the national referendum law was approved at a plenary meeting of the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of the Diet, by a majority vote. It saw support from the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling bloc and other parties including the biggest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

The House of Representatives, the lower chamber, passed the bill last month. The enactment comes some three years after the bill was first introduced to the Diet, in June 2018.

Attention is now likely to focus on whether political parties will actually launch specific talks on amending the Constitution.

The LDP is eager to speed up discussions on items subject to revision, while the CDP has argued that debates about regulations on television commercials related to referendums on constitutional revision should come first.

The revised law calls for voting booths to be set up at railway stations and large shopping complexes, expanding the eligibility of offshore voting to include students aboard ships while training as sailors, allowing children in a wider age group to accompany their parents to polling venues and making voting hours for early balloting more elastic.

The CDP, which opposed revising the Constitution under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had taken a cautious stance on the bill due to fears that its passage will accelerate discussions over constitutional amendments.

But the party agreed on the bill’s enactment in this Diet session after Abe stepped down, in September last year, and the ruling bloc accepted a CDP demand for a supplementary clause be added. The clause calls for a study into and necessary legislative measures on the regulation of referendum-related TV commercials, within three years after the revised law enters into force.

However, at commissions on the Constitution in both chambers of the Diet, the ruling parties and the CDP have been at odds over the interpretation of the supplementary clause.

The LDP has suggested that it would be possible to propose constitutional amendments while the study on TV commercial regulations was being conducted. But the CDP has voiced opposition, saying that the idea is “politically difficult due to the fairness of rules not being guaranteed.”

Japan’s postwar Constitution, which took effect in 1947, has never been revised, with calls for both maintaining and amending the charter’s pacifist Article 9 remaining a focal point.

Any proposed revision needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the upper and lower houses of the Diet before the proposal can be put to a national referendum.

The change to the law on referendums related to changing the Constitution also coincides with growing calls for the introduction of an emergency clause that would give broad authority to the Cabinet and limit citizens’ rights under circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the current top law, the nation’s COVID-19 state of emergency does not include a hard lockdown of the kind some other countries have imposed, and largely relies on cooperation from the public and businesses in introducing measures.

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