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Despite big election win, Abe's 4th Cabinet launched to little acclaim

The fourth Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was launched on Nov. 1 to little acclaim, despite the ruling coalition's overwhelming victory in the Oct. 22 general election.

"Voters placed their confidence in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by giving it the largest number of votes of all the past three House of Representatives elections (since 2012)," Abe told a news conference on the evening of Nov. 1.

Abe has become the first prime minister to launch his fourth Cabinet since October 1952, when then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida did so.

Political forces in favor of constitutional revisions retained over two-thirds of the seats in the lower chamber necessary to initiate amendment to the supreme law. The governing bloc comprising the LDP and Komeito holds an overwhelmingly predominant position over opposition parties.

Nevertheless, the LDP lacks a feeling of exaltation unlike the two previous general elections in 2012 and 2014 in which the ruling bloc scored landslide victories. This is largely because the LDP overwhelmingly won the latest poll thanks to a split in the opposition camp.

If key opposition parties had formed a united front, they would have defeated ruling bloc candidates in many of the single-seat constituencies. Moreover, the combined ratio of votes garnered by the two large opposition parties -- the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Party of Hope -- surpassed that for the LDP in proportional representation blocs.

The Abe government is particularly concerned that approval ratings for the Cabinet have not significantly recovered despite high support ratings for the LDP. Approval ratings for the Cabinet have slightly risen from the pre-election period as opinion polls conducted by various news organizations have shown. Nonetheless, the Abe administration has not overcome the shock caused by a sharp fall in public support in June and July.

A senior government official underscored the need for the prime minister to humbly and cautiously run the government and implement policy measures. "The administration has lasted over a long period and Abe has considerably lost support from voters. If the prime minister is to run the government in a high-handed manner, the government could further lose public support," said the official.

The prime minister, who led the ruling bloc to score an overwhelming victory, could expect to be assured of re-election to a third term as LDP leader in the autumn 2018 party presidential election. However, the prime minister is fully aware that public distrust in him could be an unexpected "pitfall." This is why he reiterated on Nov. 1 that he "will run the government in a humble manner." He had made a similar remark the day after the general election.

The subtle shaking of Abe's power base could adversely affect his long-cherished goal of amending the postwar Constitution. Since the next House of Councillors election is scheduled for the summer of 2019, the prime minister wants to make sure that the Diet will initiate constitutional revisions while political forces in favor of constitutional reform have two-thirds of seats in both chambers. Under Article 96 of the Constitution, revisions to the supreme law can be initiated by the Diet, through a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each chamber, before being submitted for a national referendum.

Abe hopes that the Diet will propose constitutional amendment at next year's regular session and hold a referendum by the end of next year at the earliest.

However, if the ruling bloc and other political forces in favor of constitutional reform were to propose such revisions without sufficient consensus between ruling and opposition parties, such a move could spark criticism from the general public.

At a recent news conference, the prime minister underscored the need for efforts to form broad consensus on the matter.

However, the Party of Hope, which Abe had expected would cooperate with the governing bloc in constitutional revisions, has become cautious about the issue because leader Yuriko Koike has considerably lost her influence within her party following its election loss.

A senior LDP legislator specializing in constitutional reform says, "We at least need to reach agreement with the largest opposition party on constitutional revisions."

However, the CDP, the largest opposition party in the lower house, is opposed to adding a paragraph stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to war-renouncing Article 9, while the Democratic Party, the No. 1 opposition force in the upper chamber, is cautious about such revisions.

Komeito also remains cautious about writing the existence of the SDF into Article 9. Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi warned the LDP against taking advantage of the ruling bloc's overwhelming majority to hastily move to revise the supreme law. "We don't necessarily have a sense of victory in proportion to the number of seats (the ruling bloc captured in the election)," he told a general meeting of Komeito members of both chambers on Nov. 1.

Still, if Prime Minister Abe is to place too much emphasis on staying in power and forming a consensus between ruling and opposition parties on constitutional reform, the prime minister's plan to ensure that a revised Constitution comes into force by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, could fail.

The prime minister has emphasized that he is not sticking to a schedule for constitutional revisions.

Due to Abe's fragile predominance, the prime minister faces difficulties in running his administration while closely watching opposition parties' moves.

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