Japan’s Abe faces battle on reforms despite win

Tokyo: Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed today to prevail over resistance to his plans for economic and political change following a weekend election victory that gives him up to four more years in power.

In yesterday’s snap election, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that has ruled for most of the post-World War II era locked up a solid majority of at least 291 seats.

About 35 seats were claimed by the LDP’s coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed Komei party, giving the ruling bloc more than two-thirds of the 475-seat House of Representatives.

That majority could enable the coalition to override resistance in the upper house, but not necessarily the powerful vested interests and bureaucrats opposed to major reforms many economists say are needed to revitalise Japan’s economy.

“We are taking the energy, power and support we received from the voters and will firmly and directly proceed ahead,” a visibly weary but relaxed Abe said in a news conference. “We still face a mountain of difficult problems that needs to be tackled.”

Businesses are reluctant to sink their cash hoards in a shrinking home market, farmers are dead set on keeping their cushion of subsidies and tariffs, and voters remain leery of many of Abe’s plans. The election victory changes none of that.

Japan could gain significantly by boosting its productivity through labour reforms and improving business conditions for foreign companies, but such initiatives have made little headway.

“Don’t look for bold new economic reforms,” said Gerald Curtis, a politics professor at Columbia University who was in Tokyo. “I think we’ll see pretty much more of the same. Labour market reform? I don’t see it happening.”

The ruling coalition’s solid majority — and the four-year span until the next lower house election must be held — does give the rightward-leaning Abe space to move ahead on some of his longer-term political goals.

They include revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to expand the role of its military and allow restrictions of freedoms such as speech and expression if they are deemed to harm the public interest.

But many Japanese are wary of Abe’s nationalistic goals, and a heated debate is expected when parliament is expected to take up the proposals to expand Japan’s military role, likely after local elections in April.

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