Japan’s political leaders clash over constitution, tax in televised election debate

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 October, 2017, 8:52pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 October, 2017, 9:26pm

The leaders of Japan’s major political parties clashed on Sunday over the future of the country’s constitution and tax policy, two days before the start of official campaigning for the October 22 House of Representatives election.

The eight-way debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo was dominated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party, who has been in power since December 2012, and charismatic Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, leader of the newly formed Party of Hope.

Both are going into the election on a conservative platform and support amending the 70-year-old constitution for the first time.

But they disagreed on what should be the focus of the amendment debate, including how to reconcile the constitution’s war-renouncing article 9 with the expanding role of the Self-Defence Forces.

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Abe repeated that each party’s position should be discussed “constructively” in constitutional commissions in the Diet before an amendment is officially proposed and put to a nationwide referendum.

He had suggested in May that in addition to the existing clauses of article 9, explicit mention of the SDF’s status should be added to remove any question that the existence of the SDF is unconstitutional.

Koike, who briefly served as defence minister in 2007 during Abe’s first administration, expressed “major doubts” about that proposal during the debate.

“[Abe’s] talk of adding a third clause ... could reverse the relationship between the Defence Ministry and SDF,” she warned.

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Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito, also expressed caution over the idea, saying the country is still divided over whether to put the SDF’s role in the constitution.

“Without the full understanding of the public, it would be premature to ask them [to vote on an amendment],” Yamaguchi said earlier in the day on a Japanese television programme.

But he reiterated in the debate that his party’s coalition with the LDP will remain solid, even though in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly Komeito has cooperated with a regional party backing Koike.

Abe has said he will resign if the LDP and Komeito together fail to secure a majority of seats.

He promised to “fully protect the country through stable politics”, while Koike vowed to “bring hope to Japan” by putting its citizens first.

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Koike said her party would postpone an increase of the consumption tax from 8 to 10 per cent planned for October 2019, “because economic benefits are not being felt by all Japanese people”.

Abe attacked the Party of Hope’s alternative plan to obtain revenue by taxing major companies’ retained earnings, saying such a move would drive enterprise out of Japan.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as finance minister, recently said the idea floated by Koike would be regarded as double taxation if companies are required to pay income tax twice on the same earnings.

The Party of Hope has said it aims to field at least 233 candidates, or half the 465 seats in the House of Representatives, to challenge the ruling coalition for the reins of government. But as of Sunday the party was still at least two dozen candidates short.

“We’re doing the last bit of work,” Koike said.

Koike has repeatedly said she will not resign as governor to run for the lower house. She said her party will pick its preferred prime minister after the election, “reflecting on the results”.