Will the real Shinzo Abe please stand up?
Abe, back as Japan's premier in a rare second term, is expected to lead his ruling bloc to victory in a July upper house election, but what he will do with the mandate is a puzzle.
Pessimists fear too decisive a win will weaken commitment to reforms needed to end the stagnation that has long plagued the economy.
The risks are twofold.
First, a massive victory by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could generate complacency even as swollen ranks of conservative lawmakers strengthen the hand of the vested interests that have long been the LDP's core constituencies.
Second, Abe may use his mandate to push a conservative agenda centered on revising the pacifist constitution - recognizing Japan's right to maintain a military - and recasting its wartime history with a less apologetic tone, distracting from difficult economic reforms.
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"If they win, the government will be very stable, but stability creates laxness," said former Economics Minister Hiroko Ota, a member of an advisory panel on deregulation - touted by Abe as a key component of his "Third Arrow" growth strategy.
The first two "arrows" in the "Abenomics" policy prescription were hyper-easy monetary policy and fiscal spending, neither of which faced much political opposition.
"The issues that remain face strong opposition and that is why they were not possible so far," Ota told Reuters. "That is why we need to remain intensely on guard."
Pledging to revive growth in the world's third-biggest economy, bolster its defence posture and alter the consitution, Abe took office after the LDP's general election win last December. That was just over five years after he abruptly resigned from the country's top job due to ill health and a humiliating loss in an election for parliament's upper chamber.
But the LDP and its junior partner, the New Komeito, still lack a majority in the upper house, which can block legislation.
Abe and his allies need a win there both to end the "twisted parliament" that has foiled policy implementation since 2007 and to wipe away the bitter memory of his earlier defeat.
Third Arrow Doubts
Buoyed by a stellar win in Sunday's Tokyo local election, the LDP and New Komeito look on track for a solid majority in the upper house contest. Some political sources say Abe's party may win a majority on its own.
Pessimists fear that too big a win for the LDP would bolster the opposition to regulatory reforms from lawmakers with close ties to industries and sectors that would suffer from change.
"Winning the upper house election is not the key to pushing through the structural reforms that Japan needs because the vested interests are only going to get stronger," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
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