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Abe must now focus more on the home front

Monday, July 28, 2014 - 06:00

Tokyo

IN the roughly year-and-a-half since he came to power, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has traversed the world seeking to prove that "Japan is back" as a global economic and political force. But now, he is being forced to focus more on the home front.

As the globe-trotting and internationally high profile Japanese leader continues his current nine-day official visit to Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Brazil - capping trips in the past year to Africa, the Middle East and Europe - he appears to be facing erosion of domestic support.

A cabinet reshuffle due shortly is expected to see Mr Abe appoint a minister of state for regional economies as polls show that the slow improvement in Japan's local economies under Abenomics is eroding voter support for the prime minister and his team.

While Abenomics have "wowed" the rest of world, the fact that benefits of monetary and fiscal stimulus plus structural economic reforms are not spreading evenly throughout Japan have limited their domestic appeal, political analysts say.

Mr Abe's controversial initiatives in seeking to reinterpret Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, to create a new state secrecy law and to end a long-standing ban on Japanese arms exports, have also not played well to a domestic audience, critics say.

In addition to creating a new ministerial position for local economic affairs, the prime minister set up a special office last Friday to boost work on rural economies and to coordinate all public works Bills submitted to the Japanese parliament in this regard.

Last week also saw the Abe administration create a special budget framework worth some four trillion yen (S$48.79 billion) for fiscal 2015 "which will be spent to boost Japan's rural economies and to increase the country's economic growth potential," according to The Japan Times.

In order to focus on these measures, the cabinet "has cancelled a plan to submit all controversial security bills to an extraordinary session (of the Japanese parliament due in the autumn), including those allowing Japan to use the right of collective self defence", the paper said.

These bills will not now be submitted until after the Diet (parliament) enacts the fiscal 2015 budget in the spring of next year.

Mr Abe made a public promise recently that he would not rest until the benefits if his Abenomics reforms have spread throughout the length and breadth of the country. But some critics say his passion for action on a series of domestic and global fronts is limiting his effectiveness.

Government officials "have stressed that Japan urgently needs to reinvigorate regional economies in order to halt polpulation ouflows from rural areas to big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka," The Japan Times report said.

This would "help stem the rapid shrinking of the population and prevent the demise of many small rural towns in Japan", Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga - himself a farmer's son turned politician - was quoted as saying.

Japanese media meanwhile cite political reasons for Mr Abe's decision to give domestic economic affairs more attention.

"He is facing a number of key local elections in coming months at the same time as his popularity with votes is dropping," The Japan Times said.

"Speculation is rife among political observers that Abe's popularity may already have passed its peak," it added. Recent media polls have shown his approval rate has plunged to its lowest level since he came to power for the second time in December 2012."