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Abe's uncertain grip on power

Japan's prime minister wins election but fails to convince voters

Even after the latest election win, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be in much the same political shape as he went into the poll.   © Reuters

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should have been smiling broadly on Sunday evening as he took in the results of the Japanese lower house election.

He appeared to have been vindicated in his bold decision to call a snap poll. His Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, its coalition partner, had held on top its two-thirds supermajority in the House of Representatives -- enough to pass constitutional amendments.

He had seen off the challenge from his high-profile rival, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who had established a new grouping -- the Party of Hope (Kibo no To) -- only to wreck her chances by declining to run herself and champion her party in the election.

By winning his third lower house election, the 63-year-old premier seemed to have done more than enough to secure his prospects for re-election as LDP president next year and staying in power as prime minister until 2021.

But instead of exuding cheer, Abe was wooden in his demeanor in his Sunday evening television appearance. Part of his dour countenance could be attributed to restraint in response to the weather; it would have been unseemly to exhibit glee as parts of the archipelago were being pounded by Typhoon Lan. However, Abe could also not fail to reflect that he ended the night in much the same political position as he entered it.

Meanwhile the opposition, rather than being buried underneath his landslide victory, had instead risen, phoenix-like, from out of the rubble of failure -- in the shape of a surprise new party, the Constitutional Democratic Party.

The supermajority in the House of Representatives gives Abe free rein, in theory, to pass any legislation he wishes, not least measures he has promised to deregulate the economy. The LDP could even lose control of the House of Councillors, the parliamentary upper house in elections in 2019 -- an unlikely scenario -- without Abe's legislative program suffering serious damage. A House of Representatives supermajority can override acts of the House of Councillors.

However, Abe and his government have already been in power for five years, the last two years with supermajorities in BOTH Houses. The Bank of Japan, under Kuroda Haruhiko, is very flexible and accommodating to government requests, notably in extending the easy money program that has revived economic growth. The government has a pile of detailed economic reforms ready to go before the Diet.

Nevertheless, Abe's program of economic revitalization is listless: He is unable to cut the Gordian knots of skilled labor mobility, cash hoarding by corporations and underfunded pension obligations.

As for economic reforms dear to foreign investors and foreign governments, Prime Minister Abe is unlikely to use his political capital for anything but more than gestures. Gov. Koike called for the end of restraints on the economy that protect or support domestic special interests. Abe feels no pressure to remove such restraints. He indeed appreciates protections and privileges as the coin of the political realm.

Meanwhile his signature proposals to normalize Japan's security laws, by easing legal restrictions on the deployment of the Self-Defense Forces, have been highly divisive. By taking pragmatic but constitutionally questionable routes toward making Japan more capable of defending its interests, he and his government have endured serious erosion of their popular support, even though the effective increases in Japan's self-defense capacity have been ridiculously tiny.

As for his hopes of revising Japan's pacifist constitution, to reduce the constraints on the military, Abe has only half the powers he needs to pass an amendment with the renewed supermajority in the House of Representatives. And it is the lesser half.

Abe and his allies could write a constitutional amendment in the morning and have it passed by the two Houses of the Diet by the afternoon. A final legal step, however, requires that more than 50% of the voters approve the change in a national referendum. Unfortunately for Abe, fewer than 50% of the voters support his Cabinet; furthermore not a single current Abe government policy enjoys the support of 50% of the public.

Exit polls on Oct. 22 found that over 50% of the electorate "does not trust" Abe. Add to this lack of trust, the quality that I cynically call "the Abe Magic" -- the inexorable deterioration of public support for an idea the longer Abe talks about it -- and the outlook for any possible constitution revision under his leadership is bleak.

Even after the overwhelming victory on Oct. 22, the LDP itself is demonstrating little love for the party president. LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai asserted that the school scandals that ravaged Abe's popularity in the first half of 2017 would be "faced squarely" in the months ahead. One explanation of why Abe dissolved the Diet was the prospect of it becoming bogged down by these scandals. That the number two official in the LDP said that Abe's need to defend himself was undiminished, and did so on election night, indicates the depth of feeling for Abe amongst even his beneficiaries is not deep.

To all this, one has to add the threat posed by the rise of the Constitutional Democratic Party -- an ideologically unified opposition party sewn together in two weeks out of the unlikely blend of refugees from the defunct Democratic Party, Twitter tweets, youth volunteers, donations and fawning press coverage. It has returned feisty old lions of the opposition -- Yukio Edano, Banri Kaieda, Naoto Kan, Tomoko Abe -- who will gnaw and tear at Abe and his policies in Diet committees.

So while Abe has his well-deserved electoral victory, his capacity to enjoy it is limited. He has a long road ahead of him -- and from the look on his face, he knows it.

Michael Cucek, adjunct professor at Temple University Japan and Waseda University, is an analyst and author who has spent half a lifetime looking at Japan.

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