The Straits Times says

Big challenges loom for Abe's Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sense of timing was impeccable when he called for an early election, sensing an opportunity to catch the opposition on the wrong foot. Early polls suggested Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike could mount a serious challenge with her populist call to "reset Japan". As it turned out, Mr Abe managed to retain his supermajority in both houses of the Japanese Diet, giving him more time to work on his electoral promises upon which Japan's fate hangs.

However, time is not on the nation's side. The health of the world's third-largest economy needs to be revived, but a big challenge being faced by the prescription dubbed Abenomics is the combined effect of a shrinking population and ageing. Mr Abe is right to press the alarm bell as "the problem is progressing by the minute". Given the ticking demographic time bomb, the task of dragging the economy out of the bog of near-zero growth and stagnating prices will likely get tougher with time. Stability and continuity will allow Japan to evaluate the cumulative effect of all "three arrows" of loose monetary policy, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms, which aim to tackle deflation and boost growth. Political disruption, as in the past, could lead to more wasted decades.

If Mr Abe continues to be at the helm for another term, he would become modern Japan's longest-serving prime minister. That would be quite a feat, considering the high turnover of leaders between 1993 and 2012, when he took over - a total of 18 Cabinets and 13 prime ministers. Being in a position of strength is an obvious advantage but there's more to Japanese politics than meets the eye. A poll by the liberal Asahi Shimbun suggested that slightly over half of voters were not in favour of Mr Abe leading the nation, perhaps due to cronyism scandals which had earlier battered his approval ratings. Still, many opted for the safety of the ruling party (with Mr Abe securing almost 73 per cent of the vote in his district) because of a divided opposition and North Korean threats. With voter turnout at slightly over half and many multi-cornered fights, some political observers have declared that "Mr Abe has won a big victory, but he has a weak mandate".

That sobering reality should prompt him to not rush legislation and work for consensus when it comes to constitutional reform. Revising the pacifist Constitution is a pet project of Mr Abe, who argues that Japan needs to adapt to the changed circumstances of today. Many Japanese fear such a right-wing push could mean involvement in foreign conflicts. A revision would also raise the hackles of China and South Korea, where Japan's seeming reluctance to address its wartime past remains a point of contention. While Mr Abe could use his two-thirds majority to get his way in Parliament, he should tread with caution, mindful both of past hurts and future challenges.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2017, with the headline 'Big challenges loom for Abe's Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe