January 1, 2014 7:00 am JST

Hurdles ahead for Abe in 2014 despite electoral quiet

The prime minister plans to keep focusing on the economy.

TOKYO -- Even in a new year without big elections, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government may find its mettle tested by such bones of contention as the consumption tax, nuclear energy and collective self-defense.

     Japan has no major national elections planned for 2014. The next battlegrounds will be in 2015, with nationwide local elections in the spring and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election in the fall. The next contest for the Diet's upper house is scheduled for the summer of 2016, while the terms of lower house lawmakers will end that December.

     The Abe government will continue to focus on economic policy with an eye toward the 2015 races, a source close to the prime minister says.

     "The struggle to restore a strong Japan has just begun," Abe said in his New Year's reflection. "Here as we begin a new year, I have renewed my determination to continue to be highly attentive as we proceed down this long and arduous path."

     He stressed that "we are still only halfway to our goal of breaking free from deflation," vowing: "I will continue to spare no effort going forward in order to restore a robust economy."

     Abe also touched on revising the constitution -- a conservative goal championed by the prime minister.

     "It is soon going to be 68 years since its enactment," Abe noted. "I believe that now we should deepen our national discussions further, with a view to introducing amendments that incorporate various changes in the times."

     A major hurdle for the government in 2014 will be 5% consumption tax rising to 8% in April. While demand is surging ahead of the hike, it is expected to pull back once the increase is in place. Abe intends to put the economy back on track toward recovery around July.

     A downturn could erode support for the cabinet, since the success of Abenomics has shored up its approval rating.

     The prime minister intends to decide by the end of the year whether to raise the tax to 10% in October 2015 as planned, based on economic indicators in the July-September quarter. While sources close to Abe say a delay in this second hike is a possibility, such a move would meet with opposition from the rest of the LDP.

     The main way Abe seeks to make his mark is through the question of the right to collective self-defense: the ability to treat attacks on allies like attacks on Japan itself and respond accordingly.

     Previous governments have contended that while Japan has this right under international law, the constitution forbids the exercise of it. A roundtable of experts will deliver a report to Abe in the spring.

     LDP coalition partner New Komeito opposes this reinterpretation, making difficult negotiations inevitable. Abe plans to work with the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party on the issue, aiming to split the opposition. But this may come at the cost of relations with his allies.

     The nuclear plant restart slated for spring will undoubtedly meet with strident protest, dealing a blow to the Abe government. The prime minister plans to reshuffle his cabinet and the lineup of key LDP officials in the summer after the end of the ordinary Diet session, but his picks may breed resentment within the party.

     The Abe government still faces many threats to its long-term stability.