Japan PM Abe's mandate is much smaller than it looks

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's landslide election victory at the weekend was anything but a ringing endorsement from voters. The vast majority never voted for his coalition.

Abe's mandate is much smaller than his ruling bloc's win in the upper house poll suggests: only about one in four voters gave their support. Three-quarters of the electorate either did not vote at all or backed opposition parties.

The opposition, though, was badly fractured, with the Communist Party emerging as one unlikely beneficiary of those who felt unable to back Abe's Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition or the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

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That means Abe -- who returned to power in December promising to revive the stagnant economy, bolster Japan's defense posture and revise its pacifist constitution -- may find the only potential brake on his agenda comes from his dovish coalition partner and rivals inside his own LDP.

"The opposition is currently totally ineffective," said Chuo University political science professor Steven Reed.

"Neither the opposition nor public opinion is going to put a brake on his policies to any significant degree," he said. "The thing that will restrain him is the (coalition partner) New Komeito and the need to maintain unity in his own party."

Perhaps reflecting a sense of fait accompli among voters, turnout was just over 52 percent, more than five points below the previous turnout for upper house elections.

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The LDP and its partner got just less than 50 percent of the total vote, and since only about half of eligible voters went to the polls, that means only one in four Japanese cast their ballots for the LDP-led bloc.

Nonetheless, the LDP and New Komeito won 76 of the 121 seats up for grabs in the 242-member upper house. Together with the coalition's uncontested 59 seats, that gave it a comfortable majority, raising the chances that Abe can stay in office until the next general election, which need not be held until 2016.

Opposition votes were split among a raft of parties including the Democratic Party, which is flailing after being ousted last year, the Japanese Communist Party, which broadened its appeal beyond traditional backers, and two small right-leaning parties both of which argue the LDP is incapable of economic reform because of its ties to vested interests.

Popular disconnect

The victory ends a "twisted parliament" in which the upper house could block bills -- a state that has hampered policies since the LDP's huge 2007 upper house loss during Abe's first term.

The Japanese leader's "Abenomics" recipe for reviving the economy has inspired a rare atmosphere of hope after decades of stagnation, bolstering support levels to around 60 percent.

"I think that through this election, the LDP's new stance has received a mandate," Abe told a news conference on Monday.

But media surveys show a disconnect between some of his key policies and the preferences of many voters.

The Tokyo Shimbun metropolitan newspaper said 42.9 percent were opposed to Abe's proposal to lower the hurdle for revising the U.S.-drafted, post-war constitution by changing the charter's Article 96, hich requires a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament before a public referendum can be held. That compared to 37.5 percent in favour of the change.

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Revising Article 96 would ease the path to revising the constitution's signature Article 9 to legitimise the military.

Almost 55 percent of voters oppose restarting nuclear reactors that went offline after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the newspaper said, although the LDP wants those units to get up and running if they are confirmed safe by a new regulator.

"The 'twisted parliament' has been resolved, but there is a 'twist' between the people and the (ruling) politicians," said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.

But with no need to face the voters for three more years, Abe may decide to go ahead with unpopular policies anyway.

"The victory may make it more attractive for Abe to seize the moment and go in that direction," Nakano said.

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Abe may have to move carefully on the constitution for now, though, since the New Komeito is wary and the LDP and two small parties that back revisions lack the needed two-thirds majority.

"Without a two-thirds majority, a revision to the constitution cannot be proposed. We cannot proceed with a revision even if we want to ... We want to take time to make a gradual, steady progress," Abe said.