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Abe seeks to avoid repeat of his swift demise a decade ago

Unpopular policies and a slew of scandals triggered a slide in public support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that led to a heavy election defeat.

[TOKYO] Unpopular policies and a slew of scandals triggered a slide in public support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that led to a heavy election defeat.

That was in 2007, when he abruptly resigned, citing health issues, after losing the upper house of parliament. Ten years on, his situation looks uncomfortably familiar.

Mr Abe returned to Tokyo on Tuesday from a curtailed European trip to face lost public trust and record low voter support. Ministerial gaffes and his failure to allay suspicions over a cronyism scandal involving a close friend contributed to his ruling party suffering an historic defeat in a recent Tokyo election. The public is wary of his plan to rush through a revision to the pacifist constitution.

But this time around he's likely to hold onto his job - at least for the time being. No opposition party has support in double figures and no senior member of his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party has emerged as an open challenger.

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Mr Abe could stay in place until a party leadership election expected in autumn next year, just months before a general election has to be held.

"What's different from 10 years ago is that the Democratic Party is very weak," said Lully Miura, a lecturer at the Policy Alternatives Research Institute at Tokyo University, referring to the main national opposition party.

"And there's no one in the LDP who can attract more support than Abe as party leader or prime minister at this point."

'No Magic Tricks'

Support for Mr Abe's cabinet fell 13 percentage points to 35 per cent in a poll published by public broadcaster NHK on Monday, the lowest since he retook office in late 2012. In a separate survey by the Asahi newspaper, 61 per cent of respondents said they didn't trust Mr Abe, with most saying they were not convinced by his explanation of how one of his oldest friends was selected to open a new veterinary college with government support.

Mr Abe plans a cabinet reshuffle next month. He's expected to keep core members such as finance minister Taro Aso and chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga in place, while ousting embattled defence minister Tomomi Inada and other ministers tainted by gaffes and scandals, according to local media.

Personnel changes, however, failed to boost Mr Abe's support after he lost an upper house election 10 years ago.

"There are no magic tricks for reviving the party," LDP secretary general Toshihiro Nikai told reporters Tuesday.

"We will deal honestly and sincerely with the political issues facing us."

Mr Abe may also try to bolster the economy with fresh fiscal stimulus, or seek a rapprochement with Chinese President Xi Jinping that could help deter the threat from North Korea and improve confidence in his leadership.

Barclays Plc warned that markets could be complacent about the potential effect of Mr Abe losing power, Tetsufumi Yamakawa, head of Japan research, wrote in a July 7 note. He said the government could then move toward balancing public finances and normalising monetary policy.

No Opposition

A decade ago, Mr Abe's failed first term in office helped to build support for the Democrats, who swept to a general election victory in 2009. While the main opposition party has striven to keep the public's focus on cabinet scandals, it's reaped no benefit this time around. 

Support for the LDP fell 6 percentage points from the previous month to 30.7 per cent in the NHK survey, but only 5.8 per cent of respondents backed the Democrats.

Forty-seven per cent said they supported no party, the highest level since July 2012 - just months before Mr Abe took office. In the Asahi survey, 82 per cent said a viable opposition party was needed.

Local media are touting foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba as senior LDP members likely to emerge as leadership rivals. In recent weeks, both have grown increasingly critical of the prime minister, and Kyodo News, citing unidentified government officials, said Wednesday that Mr Kishida intends to leave the cabinet.

But former administrative reform minister Seiichiro Murakami said in an interview last week that the potential challengers were weak because neither had offered an alternative policy vision.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, a recent defector from the LDP, and her Tomin First group overwhelmed Mr Abe's party in the July 2 election in the capital. But she's said she wants to focus on local politics in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In any case, it is unclear whether Mr Koike, a conservative populist who has avoided direct criticism of Mr Abe, would be keen to form a national opposition group.

Lame Duck

The evaporation of support for Mr Abe risks making him a lame duck and demonstrates the vulnerability of the LDP, which won fewer votes in its 2012 victory than when it lost to the Democrats three years earlier, according to Steven Reed, a professor of political science at Chuo University.

"They have never been safe," Mr Reed said of the LDP.

"Any time a reasonably attractive alternative appears, voter turnout goes up and they lose."

"But it can't just be a collection of people that don't like the LDP. People that didn't necessarily agree with each other but wanted to unseat the LDP all gathered into the Democratic Party and they won. They proved incapable of governing."