Charlie Brown is back in Tokyo, and he’s not happy. Every five years or so, the Charles Schulz character hits Japan with fellow “Peanuts” pal Lucy and her football. It’s a recurring theme of the cartoon: Lucy convincing Charlie time and time again to take a big running start to kick the ball. This time, Lucy insists, she won’t yank it away, sending Charlie down into the mud. And once again, Charlie looks up from the ground disgusted by his gullibility.

This pattern is familiar to Japan investors wondering how, oh how, they got suckered again. They went for it in the early 2000s when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi promised to let markets kick away, and again in 2009 with Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan in 2010. Then came Shinzo Abe’s turn to win investors’ trust, and he did so dazzlingly. But dismal economic data and sliding stocks are sending investors into the mud, ruing their naivete — again.

Abe’s bigger football gag is on voters, of course. Sunday’s election marks at least the third time he’s gotten the people to support his Abenomics scheme. Even though deflation is deepening, retail sales and industrial production are sputtering and corporate profits are evaporating, Abe is holding the ball and saying “come on, trust me” to 127 million people (polls suggest they will). Before long, though, they’ll be dusting themselves off as Abe ignores pro-growth reforms and focuses elsewhere — on amending the Constitution, Tokyo’s security footprint abroad and prettying up Japan’s World War II exploits. As markets quake over “Brexit,” is it time for “Abexit?”

It’s not my right to tell the Japanese who to vote for in the July 10 Upper House election. But Katsuya Okada, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, was absolutely right to call Abenomics a lost opportunity in a Bloomberg News interview. With a clear plan to revive Japan, majorities in both houses of the Diet and decent approval numbers, Abe should’ve been the leader to execute the shock therapy on which Tokyo punted forward for decades. Abe, let’s face it, has proven to be far more of a Lucy than Joseph Schumpeter.

Admittedly, Abe was always an odd reformer. The pampered scion of a political dynasty and leader of a party that ruled Japan with a couple of brief interruptions since 1955 upending the system? Nevertheless, his return to the premiership in 2012 was heralded as Japan’s Margaret Thatcher-Ronald Reagan moment. His three “arrows” — monetary expansion, fiscal support and deregulation — were a good start. But the key elements of Abe’s second and third arrows never materialized.

With another recession beckoning, you’d think the opposition would be making big inroads. Yet the Democratic Party hasn’t articulated a viable alternative to Abenomics.

Okada’s party would greatly increase their vote tally by taking two immediate steps. One, promise to implement Abenomics, not just give lip service to loosening labor markets, increasing entrepreneurship, empowering women and forcing companies to adhere to international standards of governance and accountability. Two, go far beyond what the Abe administration has pledged.

As I said, Abenomics is a good start, but there’s nothing bold or innovative about it — merely an obvious list of steps Tokyo should’ve taken 15 years ago. Much more is needed to shake up a sclerotic and rigid system still clinging to memories of the 1980s glories days.

The first step is letting the Bank of Japan take a breather. From day one, Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda led the stimulus charge, pumping untold trillions of dollars into the economy, devaluating the yen and cornering the bond and stock markets. He’s effectively achieved none of the BOJ’s goals. The reason: Only by taking the structural weights off the economy’s ankles can growth accelerate and wages increase.

Along with implementing Abe’s third arrow, opposition officials should act immediately to eliminate red tape and offer tax holidays for startups; penalize huge companies sitting on $2 trillion of cash better used boosting wages; lower trade barriers ahead of the Trans-Pacific Partnership; champion renewable energy over nuclear; impose quotas for female executives and Cabinet ministers; increase immigration; penalize banks that horde public debt rather than extend credit; curb corporate malfeasance; encourage an end to seniority-based promotions; ramp up English training so Japan can better compete; write up more flexible work hours; offer new training and education initiatives; and devise ways to put cash directly into consumers’ hands.

Abe’s boosters counsel patience. Change takes time in Japan and Abenomics requires a few more years to kick in, they argue. I’d be more convinced if Abe had put a single major reform win on the scoreboard. After 42 months, you’d think he’d have more to brag again than milquetoast moves to trash the yen, put government pensions in harm’s way and open a few day care centers. And what makes those conned by Abenomics think Japan has time on its side?

We’re living in “China years” that speed up the need for older and richer countries to adapt with each 12-month interval. Japan was already falling behind in 2010 when China’s economy became the world’s second biggest. And Abe’s three-and-half years of yanking away the reform ball, Lucy-style, just prolonged the nation’s malaise.

As Tokyo mulls the fallout from U.K. voters ditching the European Union, it’s tempting to game out a scenario where Japan’s voters confound the conventional wisdom and scurry toward Abexit. Change at the very top may be just the thing to get Tokyo’s eye on the ball.

Based in Tokyo, William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia and writes on Asian economics. www.barronsasia.com

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