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Abenomics reboot part of wider strategy for building on win

Abe keeps the focus on the economy.

TOKYO -- Even after Shinzo Abe and fellow proponents of revising the constitution apparently gained the numbers in parliament to start the process, the Japanese prime minister stressed Monday that the economy remains his top priority.

"We don't have time to bask in the echoes of our victory," Abe told reporters a day after his ruling coalition won handily in upper house elections. He said he would promptly begin work on economic stimulus measures.

Nearly 80% of Abe's initial remarks at the news conference concerned his economic agenda. The rest dealt with foreign policy, with not a word coming from his own mouth about the constitution until prompted. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga hewed to Abe's economy-first line in his own news conference later.

The stimulus package is expected to come together in early August, after which work will begin on a supplementary budget to pay for it. The budget proposal would go before the Diet in a legislative session likely to begin in September.

Abe's lack of obvious zeal for constitutional changes, supposedly his greatest political ambition, contrasted with the clear emphasis on the economy. The prime minister said he wants members of constitutional commissions in both houses of parliament to steer the debate. "This isn't something that the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party can decide all on his own," he said.

"If he had shown a strong desire, he would have been slammed for being too aggressive," a former cabinet minister commented.

Revising the constitution initially requires two-thirds supermajorities in both houses. Following Sunday's upper house election, proponents appear to have the strength to clear this hurdle, after which the public would vote on the changes in a referendum.

But Abe "hasn't called an election premised on constitutional change," a person close to the prime minister said.

"To amend the constitution, he would first have to dissolve the lower house and seek a mandate," this source said.

Holding a referendum on proposed amendments before his term as LDP leader ends in September 2018 would prove daunting if not impossible. A more practical way forward might be to call a snap election during that time to let voters show where they stand on constitutional changes and his government's performance.

Abe has described beating deflation as his top priority since his return as prime minister, yet victory continues to elude him. Consumer spending remains sluggish, and the limits of monetary easing are becoming apparent to some.

Abe's high cabinet approval ratings "are a testament to Abenomics," a former cabinet minister said, noting that "if we keep failing to escape deflation, he will lose support."

The urgency with which Abe is pushing ahead on economic stimulus suggests to some that he may call a snap general election late this year or in early 2017. The longer the economy remains stuck in low gear, the less time he has to go to the polls in pursuit of his constitutional ambitions.


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