World

Tough choices ahead for Abe

Unpopular Japanese Prime Minister faces uphill struggle to achieve goal of revising constitution

TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has achieved much of his conservative security agenda since taking office in 2012 but unless he can revive his flagging popularity, his goal of revising the pacifist constitution is likely to elude his grasp.

Failure to achieve that goal by the 2020 target he announced three months ago would erode Mr Abe's already weakened clout, dimming his chances of becoming Japan's longest-serving prime minister, lawmakers in his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said.

"Abe is filled with a desire to do this. He thinks revising the constitution is his greatest mission as a politician ... but can he really?," LDP lawmaker Katsuei Hirasawa told Reuters.

"To fail to achieve it would mean huge damage to Abe as a politician," said Mr Hirasawa, who once privately tutored a youthful Mr Abe. "It would be better if he had never said it."

Mr Abe's second term as LDP leader ends in September next year and his support has plunged to below 30 per cent in some polls.

That is the lowest since he returned to power almost five years ago with a conservative agenda of reviving traditional values and loosening limits on the military that centred on amending the pacifist post-war constitution.

The decline has spurred talk that Mr Abe may call a snap election before year's end, even if that means risking the two-thirds super-majority needed to amend the constitution.

A general election does not need to be held until late nest year but the main opposition Democratic Party is in disarray after its leader abruptly resigned and a novice local party led by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has yet to become a national force.

DIVIDED

"The goal would be to keep a majority and maintain the LDP government," veteran LDP lawmaker Takeshi Noda told Reuters, adding ruling party lawmakers were divided on the possible move.

Mr Abe's proposal to clarify the military's ambiguous status by revising the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9 would be hugely symbolic in Japan.

Many conservatives see the US-drafted charter as a humiliating imposition, while opponents to change view it as the basis of Japan's peace and democracy. Any revision would spur concern in China, where memories of Japan's past military aggression persist.

Article 9 technically bans the maintenance of armed forces but has been interpreted by successive Japanese governments to allow the Self-Defence Forces, as the military is known, for exclusively defensive purposes.

Historic changes enacted in 2015 expanded that to allow for limited collective self-defence, or aiding an ally under attack.

Backers of Mr Abe's proposed revision say it would simply formalise those stances, although critics worry it would set the stage for further loosening restrictions, such as fighting in US-led wars abroad.

Mr Abe hopes to revive his flagging ratings with a cabinet reshuffle this week. A diplomatic coup or a security crisis could also help if voters see Mr Abe as the safest pair of hands.

But a failure to stem the decline in ratings, which have fallen from highs of around 60 per cent, would likely doom Mr Abe's hopes of seeing the revision while he is still in office. - REUTERS

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