Japan's standing rose after Mr Shinzo Abe received a second shot at the top in 2012. When he first assumed office in 2007, he was Japan's youngest post-War prime minister. Given another chance, he has made himself extremely durable and has sought to leave his imprint on Japan. In economics, there has been his special kedgeree of reflating the economy with a "three arrows" monetary and fiscal stimulus strategy - a much vaunted effort, although the last arrow of structural reform has proceeded rather tardily. In strategic affairs, he has successfully maintained Japan's tight embrace of the United States despite the campaign railings of a most disruptive American president. At home, he has tweaked the Constitution to allow arms exports as well as permit Japanese forces to operate abroad to aid allies.
Given his self-assured grasp of his nation, the Oct 22 snap polls which he has called, capitalising on the disorder in opposition ranks, ought to be a cinch and a fourth term in office all but certain, one would think. But it may not quite turn out that way. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has thrown her fledgling Party of Hope fully into the fray, galvanising a dispirited opposition and attracting Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) malcontents. Ms Koike, who defied Mr Abe and the LDP bosses to make her successful bid for governor, has electrified the initial phase of the campaign. While she earlier said she would herself not run for the Diet, it would not be a surprise if she did, as she has been open about her ambition to lead Japan.
Mr Abe, Japan's third-longest-serving leader, is certainly no easy pushover with the economic wind in his sails. In recent months, the world's No. 3 economy has snapped out of its wheeze. Unemployment in August stood at 2.8 per cent, a 20-year low. Factory output grew 2.1 per cent after a 0.8 per cent drop in July. While inflation may be sluggish, and below the central bank's target of 2 per cent, that is not something voters would complain about. Across the water, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's repeated provocations, including firing ballistic missiles over Japanese territory and nuclear testing, have left the Japanese unnerved and indignant. They back their prime minister's relentless efforts to heap more sanctions on Pyongyang. Mr Abe, it would seem, holds a strong deck of cards.
Still, Mr Abe should be careful about complacency. British Prime Minister Theresa May's gamble with a snap election this year saw her lose her parliamentary majority. Even the recent German elections have not gone according to plan. With the public mood changing, surprises are to be expected. Of course, Ms Koike is cut substantially from the same cloth as Mr Abe. So if her party manages to pull off an upset victory, it may not substantially alter things in Japan. Nevertheless, it would be one more shock Asia could do without.