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As Abe's leadership weakens, so too does LDP's appetite for Constitution battle

The new Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (front row, third from left) poses for commemorative photographs at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Aug. 3, 2017. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Aug. 3 shakeup of both his Cabinet and the executive ranks of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was aimed squarely at shaping unified sentiments across the entire party. Abe also toned down talk of plans to introduce LDP constitutional revision proposals during the extraordinary Diet session in the autumn.

Abe's leadership strength, which he was seeking to use to bring about his dream of constitutional revision, bled away as public support for his previous Cabinet plunged. Even on the day the Cabinet and LDP shuffle unfolded, party Vice President Masahiko Komura took a stab at Abe's constitutional revision ambitions when he said, "I'd like to see the Constitution issue entrusted to the party, and the Cabinet make the economy its first priority."

Komura's comment reflected anxiety over the issue within the administration, and left Abe unable to reply with anything but, "Of course." At a news conference following the party appointments, Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai told reporters, "We must layer caution upon caution," while newly appointed LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida said, "Thorough and conscientious discussion (of the Constitution) is needed." Meanwhile, as one mid-level LDP lawmaker said, growing numbers of party members are insisting that the economy is the key to rebuilding support for the Cabinet.

Abe also denied on Aug. 3 that constitutional change was "on a schedule."

However, it has become standard operating procedure for the Abe administration to talk up economic policy whenever the Cabinet's popularity takes a serious hit, as it did following the forced passage of controversial security-related legislation in 2015. As a senior executive of ruling coalition partner Komeito -- which is wary about changing the Constitution's war-renouncing Article 9 -- observed, "There is no change in the prime minister's desire" to change Article 9.

However, many challenges lie in wait for Abe. The first hurdle will be the House of Representatives out-of-session hearings on the alleged cover-up of daily reports from the Self-Defense Forces' peacekeeping unit in South Sudan. Then come a pair of lower house by-elections in Aomori Prefecture's fourth constituency and Ehime Prefecture's third constituency. If the LDP fairs as badly as it did in the July Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, it will be a definitive sign that Abe's power and appeal are collapsing.

Some LDP insiders have begun commenting that the only way to reset the circumstances beleaguering the party is to dissolve the lower house and call an early general election. However, other LDP members fear "intense headwinds" back in their home constituencies as public dissatisfaction with the administration festers, making the timing of the next election an open question.

For Abe to introduce constitutional amendment legislation to next year's regular Diet session as he'd planned, he will need the two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature currently held by pro-revision forces. It makes no strategic sense to risk that majority in a general election.

"The prime minister probably has a lingering attachment to constitutional change, but who knows if his administration will last," commented one former Cabinet member who has set themselves apart from Abe. "After all, the public's distrust is directed at the prime minister."

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