TOKYO Even Japan's next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, realizes that his party's landslide election victory is not the sweeping mandate that it appears at first blush.
An analysis of the vote as well as Abe's own comments suggests he would be best served by focusing on what matters most to voters - the economy - and steering clear of divisive issues such as revising Japan's pacifist constitution.
That said, aggressive moves by China in a territorial row over tiny islands in the East China Sea could act to bolster support for Abe's tough-talking stance toward its giant rival.
Three years after a crushing defeat, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) surged back to win 294 seats in Sunday's vote for the 480-member lower house.
Together with a smaller ally, the New Komeito party, the LDP also took a two-thirds 'super majority' that could help break Japan's persistent policy deadlock in parliament.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), in comparison, managed a mere 57 seats - less than a fifth of its showing when it swept into power for the first time in a historic 2009 vote.
Abe himself, however, admitted the victory was more a rejection of the novice Democrats' messy reign than a vote of confidence for the LDP, which ruled Japan for most of the past half-century before its ouster three years ago.
"Our victory this time does not mean trust in the Liberal Democratic Party has been completely restored. Rather, it was a decision by the public that they should put an end to the political stagnation and confusion over the past three years, caused by the Democratic Party's misguided political leadership," Abe told a news conference on Monday.
"We must move forward and achieve results."
Japanese voters have been on a roller coaster of hopes and disappointment for the past decade since charismatic leader Junichiro Koizumi took office in 2001 pledging bold reforms.
Lured by Koizumi's promises, voters handed the LDP a massive victory in 2005 only to kick out the long-ruling party four years later in hopes that the Democrats would do a better job.
In a sign that both enthusiasm and expectations are fading, turnout on Sunday was a record low 59 percent, according to a Kyodo news agency estimate.
Nor did the LDP win a majority of votes from those who did cast their ballots. The main opposition party won about 43 percent of the vote in the single-seat constituencies that supply 300 of the chamber's seats, but a first-past-the post system and split votes amongst a clutch of new, small parties meant that the party secured 79 percent of those seats.
JULY ELECTION HURDLE
In the proportional representation blocks that provide the other 180 seats, the LDP won about 28 percent of the votes compared to 16 percent for the DPJ, while the new right-leaning Japan Restoration Party took 20 percent, media estimates showed.
"It's clear that only 30 percent or less of voters solidly support the LDP. Unless Abe is careful, his cabinet support will go down to that level very quickly and even with a two-thirds majority, he would be in trouble," said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.
Abe, who quit in 2007 after a troubled year in office, will have to persuade voters quickly that they made the right choice ahead of an election for parliament's upper chamber in July.
Although the LDP-New Komeito "super majority" will allow the lower house to enact bills rejected by the upper chamber, doing so is a time-consuming and cumbersome process, so the new government will be keen to win a majority in July's poll.
"He's preparing for the next election and understands that what he does in the first few months will have a big impact and voters are most interested in the economy," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
Abe has vowed to rescue Japan from its fourth recession since 2000, end deflation and tame the strong yen with a recipe of hyper-easy monetary policy and big spending on public works.
Equally central to his agenda, however, is a push to shed the shackles of Japan's post-war pacifism by revising the U.S.-drafted constitution and rewriting wartime history with a less apologetic tinge.
Changing the charter - never altered since its adoption in 1947 - requires approval by two-thirds of both houses of parliament and a majority of voters in a national referendum.
Straw polls of voters suggest that the economy tops the list of public priorities and LDP ally New Komeito is not keen on revising the constitution's pacifist Article 9.
But a strong showing by the nationalist Japan Restoration Party in the election also indicates simmering support for a tough stance towards China as well as hope for a decisive leader to restore Japan's flagging self-respect.
That could grow if Beijing steps up its activities in waters and airspace near the disputed islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
Last week, a Chinese government plane entered what Japan considers its airspace over the islets in the East China Sea, prompting Japanese fighters to scramble and escalating tension in the row between Asia's two biggest economies.
"This has not been a strong mandate for Abe in foreign policy or security matters," said Narushige Michishita, an associate professor at the National Institute for Policy Studies. "But if China continues to provoke us as they did several days ago, that might change."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)