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After convincing election win, Abe faces tough battles

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 11:31
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's convincing win in Sunday's election has put him on course to scrape the two-thirds majority needed to press ahead with his long-held ambition of revising the country's pacifist constitution. He also vowed to take "bold" action on the economy.

[TOKYO] Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's convincing win in Sunday's election has put him on course to scrape the two-thirds majority needed to press ahead with his long-held ambition of revising the country's pacifist constitution. He also vowed to take "bold" action on the economy.

With his coalition having a two-thirds majority in the lower house, Mr Abe will come under pressure from conservative backers to push ahead with constitutional revision.

But any attempt to alter the pacifist Article 9 would meet foot-dragging from his main coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed Komeito party, and then face uncertainty in a national referendum. It also could exacerbate tensions with China.

Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director of Tokyo think tank Asian Forum Japan, pointed out that not all members of the LDP are on the same page on constitutional change.

"I don't think there's any chance he will move to change Article 9 straight away. He must consider his priorities for the two years he has left of his tenure, and this won't be a simple matter."

Mr Abe, whose LDP tenure ends in 2018, said after the polls closed Sunday that he didn't see the upper house election victory as a mandate to change the constitution, adding that he wanted to discuss potential revisions with other parties, including the main opposition Democratic Party. The constitution hasn't been modified since it was enacted in 1947.

Mr Abe will reshuffle his cabinet in early August, Kyodo news reported Monday. One potential source of discord among senior LDP lawmakers eager for the spotlight could be the fact that Finance Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida have held their positions since Mr Abe took office in December 2012.

Mr Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, the minister for regional revival, are seen as potential successors to Mr Abe and may be replaced in the cabinet changes.

While Okinawa Minister Aiko Shimajiri and Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki lost their seats in Sunday's election, they needn't be replaced immediately, since there is no requirement for ministers to be lawmakers.

As his coalition was sealing a majority on Sunday night, Mr Abe repeated a pledge to stimulate a struggling economy, saying he wants "the swift formulation of comprehensive, bold economic measures." While he declined to comment on the amount of such a stimulus package, one of his advisers recently called for 20 trillion yen (S$261.9 billion) to be spent in the current fiscal year.

Mr Abe said Monday he would order the compilation of a stimulus package on Tuesday, specifying spending on infrastructure, including high-speed railways and facilities at ports visited by cruise liners.

On social security, he pledged to broaden the qualifications for receiving public pensions by allowing those who have paid into the system for less than 25 years to receive payments.

The big win for Mr Abe also eases pressure on the Bank of Japan to expand its record monetary easing program, Takahiro Sekido, Japan strategist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, wrote in a note after the election. Mr Abe and his advisers can take time to think about a "big economic stimulus package," rather than look to monetary easing, Tokyo-based Mr Sekido said.

Robert Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co in Tokyo, wrote that the election results provide Mr Abe with a "sweet spot" to focus on concrete measures to reform the economy.

Mr Abe faces increasingly strained ties with his nation's biggest trading partner after the election victory, which the Chinese government-backed tabloid Global Times said could pose a danger to Japan and regional stability.

Long-running tensions over uninhabited islands near Taiwan that are claimed by both countries have worsened in recent weeks. A Chinese military vessel entered the contiguous zone adjacent to Japan-administered waters around the islands for the first time in June. China, in turn, said Japanese planes had "provoked" Chinese fighters patrolling the area last month, while Japan denied the accusations.

Relations between Asia's two largest economies face a further challenge Tuesday when an international tribunal rules on a South China Sea territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. Japan has been among the loudest voices calling for respect for the rule of law in the waters, sparking angry responses from China, which has said it won't stand by the ruling.

Mr Abe said Monday he would visit Mongolia this week for a meeting of Asian and European leaders, a gathering that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will also attend. It is unclear whether the two will hold talks, which would be their first since November.

Mr Abe also will have to make a decision on whether to push ahead with ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership - a US-led regional trade pact - in a parliamentary session scheduled for autumn.

"Given the bleak outlook for ratification by the United States -- and the fact that opposition to TPP may have contributed to opposition victories in several agriculture-intensive prefectures -- the government will have to decide whether it is worth expending political capital on an agreement that may never come into force," Tobias Harris, a Washington-based analyst with Teneo Intelligence, said in an e-mail.

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