Photo/Illutration The National Diet building in Tokyo (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Diet on June 11 enacted legislation to make national referendums easier for voters to decide how they feel about constitutional amendment.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which made constitutional amendment a key plank of its party platform, lauded the revised referendum law as a “big step forward.” But many important issues must still be considered to ensure a level playing field for referendums on proposals to rewrite the Constitution.

If Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga seeks to amend the Constitution in haste without making sufficient efforts to achieve a consensus, he will see the initiative run into the sands, just as his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, failed miserably in his bid to change the nation's supreme law.

The Diet vote made seven changes to the referendum law. One is to set up common voting venues not designated for a specific area that can be used by any voter in a town or city, such as train stations and shopping malls. It also raised the minimum age of children allowed to enter polling stations with their parents.

These measures are already in place for elections governed by the Public Offices Election Law. The bill, designed to also apply these measures to national referendums, was supported by all the ruling and opposition parties except for the Japanese Communist Party.

Passage came three years after the bill was first submitted to the Diet by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito.

The delay was caused by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan’s refusal to allow the bill to be put to a vote. The main opposition party feared that enactment of the revisions could be used by the Abe administration to set the stage for Diet moves to initiate an amendment to the Constitution. Abe's long-standing ambition was to rewrite the postwar Constitution while he was in office.

The CDP decided to vote for the bill because the LDP agreed to the opposition party’s proposal to add a clause stating that necessary legislative measures should be taken within three years after the revised law takes effect with regard to regulations on television and radio ads, campaign funding and other practices in voting procedures.

Addressing these issues is critical for ensuring fairness in campaigns for or against constitutional amendment so that voters can make appropriate decisions.

The ruling coalition left the bill to revise the law submitted by opposition parties in political limbo. Now that the ruling coalition’s bill with the additional clause has become law, the alliance has a duty to engage in sincere and in-depth debate on these issues.

Under current law, TV and radio ads calling for “yes” or “no” votes in a referendum on constitutional amendment are banned during the two weeks leading up to the voting day. Since there is no restriction to ads before the two-week period, however, critics point out that the current law could work in favor of political forces with greater financial resources.

But any proposal to legally regulate such adds must be scrutinized because this issue concerns freedom of speech and the people’s right to know.

When the referendum law was enacted in 2007, online media was not nearly as widely used or as influential as it is today.

Overall spending on online ads is now larger than combined television and radio ad expenditures.

Any regulation on ads concerning constitutional referendum will be ineffective if they do not cover online advertising.

Another issue concerns whether online coverage, including but not limited to ads, could have a significant effect on voters’ decisions. 

This is important in light of reports claiming that organizations controlled by the Russian government tried to interfere in U.S. presidential elections via the internet.

An additional clause calls for “securing proper use” of the Web. But it will be a daunting challenge to devise and implement effective concrete measures in this regard.

The LDP wants to enliven debate on specific proposals to amend the Constitution.

Of the four amendment proposals made under the Abe administration, which included inserting new paragraphs into war-renouncing Article 9 to legitimize the Self-Defense Forces and make clear that Japan is allowed to defend itself, the LDP is focusing on the proposal to establish a provision to deal with “emergency situations” to take advantage of the new coronavirus pandemic.

But the ruling party should not try to use the health crisis, which it believes has bolstered public support for the proposal, to forge ahead with initiatives to amend the Constitution. It should put the priority on building a broad, nonpartisan consensus on the matter.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 12