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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a press conference at LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Oct. 22. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

Abe must address Japan's painful challenges

Voters see the current government as better than all the other options

KIYOYUKI UCHIYAMA, Nikkei Political News Editor

Japanese voters opted for the continuation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government on Sunday in an election that forced many to head to their polling stations early or brave fierce winds and rain from an approaching typhoon.

Voters are not fully satisfied with Abe. But they decided to leave matters in his hands in the face of political chaos caused by the formation of two new opposition parties, Kibo no To, or the Party of Hope, and the Constitutional Democratic Party. They concluded that the Abe administration remains a better option than the alternatives.

Abe's ruling coalition took advantage of opposition's breakup and regained more than a two-thirds majority of the seats in Japan's lower house. However, if Abe becomes arrogant or careless in managing government affairs, he will find it difficult to lead with strength: The public has been keeping a close eye on him since school funding scandals flared up around him.

Abe dissolved the lower house for a snap election without giving much time for the opposition parties to prepare. Of major concern is that the government may adopt policies that reflect Abe's desire to protect his own position.

Signs of such a possibility could be seen during the election campaign. For example, Abe said Japan's dwindling birthrate is a national crisis comparable to the North Korea problem; he proposed free education as a countermeasure. He said that the revenue from a hike in the consumption tax, planned for October 2019, should be reviewed so that it could be used to finance free education.

The revenue has been meant to help Japan improve its fiscal situation. If it is used for other purposes, how can the more than 1 quadrillion yen ($8.81 trillion) in central and local government debt be addressed?

Government spending on programs for the elderly needs to be cut to ensure that a social security system is available to future generations. Yet Abe proposed expanding both nursing and medical care services.

Policy plans for his next term, especially those regarding the economy, represent "narratives of growth." But the stories told by Abe are fragmentary and short-sighted. They sound good but cannot be accepted at face value.

Although the consumption tax needs to be raised above 10% in the future, Abe mentioned plans with a time horizon of no more than two years.

Abe's diplomatic policies also fail to look ahead. Continuing pressure on North Korea may be the correct response to continued nuclear and missile taunting, but Abe made no reference to what should be done thereafter. Neither did he mention Japan's foreign policy toward neighboring China and South Korea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed in his speech to the party's national congress that China will seek to become the world's leading country by the middle of this century. What is Abe's vision for Japan?

Opposition parties also lack courage in facing future challenges and offering new visions. Companies and consumers may also be at a loss of what to do. They have lived through decades of an economy stuck in neutral. The responsibility of political leaders who achieved electoral victory on Sunday is therefore heavy.

It is unwise for Abe to hastily pursue his ardent wish to revise the constitution. Constitutional reform will be necessary at some point, but under the current circumstances moving in this direction would only add fuel to a confrontation between advocates and opponents.

As his top priority, Abe should seek cooperation from the opposition camp to pull Japan's economy out of its deflationary malaise, raise the potential growth rate and reform the country's social security system.

The term of the next lower house will last until October 2021. If Abe, who became prime minister in December 2012, is elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party for a third term at the party's leadership election in September 2018, he can expect to remain in office until 2021.

Standing at a turning point in Japan's history, Abe should discuss the future of the country without avoiding reference to painful challenges.

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