On election's eve, Japan's conservatives appear poised for dramatic comeback

If polls ahead of Sunday's vote are correct, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will take up the top slot again as leader of the LDP. His more hawkish tone on China has played well to an uneasy electorate.

Japan’s political carousel is about to revolve yet again. By late on Sunday evening, the world’s third biggest economy is expected to install its seventh prime minister in six years, with polls predicting a dramatic comeback by the conservative opposition and its hawkish leader, Shinzo Abe.

If the predictions are correct, Japan’s political landscape will have a familiar feel to it. Mr. Abe, who was chosen to lead the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] earlier this year, has already held the top job, for a year from September 2006.

Abe resigned amid scandal and ill health, and three years later, the LDP, which had monopolized power for more than 50 years, suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] in an election that many predicted would signal a new direction for Japanese politics.

Now, on the eve of the election, the DPJ experiment lies in ruins. The prime minister,Yoshihiko  Noda, has been criticized for his handling of the economy, his “weak” response to Chinese provocations over the Senkaku islands – known as the Diaoyu in China – and his party’s failure to make good on campaign promises.

It marks a dramatic decline in the DPJ’s fortunes, coming so soon after it tapped into voter discontent with the status quo, pledging to curb the influence of faceless bureaucrats, shift money from wasteful public works to families and welfare, and lessen foreign-policy dependence on the US.

The mot recent opinion polls indicate that the DPJ’s strength in the 480-seat lower house could be reduced to fewer than 70 seats. The LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito could even secure two-thirds of lower house seats, giving it complete control of the bicameral legislature after five years of division and policy stasis.

China plays a big role

While Japan’s stuttering economy is the chief concern of voters as it enters its fourth recession since 2000, the course of the election campaign has been determined, in part, by the country’s fractious relations with China.

Only this week, a Chinese marine surveillance plane flew into Japanese airspace over the Senkaku, sparking protests from Tokyo. Beijing then raised the stakes with the submission to the UN of a detailed explanation of its claims to the islands.

Abe, a hawk who during his previous term in office introduced patriotism into school curriculums and upgraded the defense agency to a fully-fledged ministry, has successfully exploited the public’s unease over Chinese aggression in the East China Sea.

He has promised to boost military spending, which Japan traditionally limits to 1 percent of GDP, and vowed to beef up the coast guard, currently the last line of defense in the seas around the Senkaku. North Korea’s successful rocket launch this week will have only strengthened d his credentials as a hardliner against the regime in Pyongyang.

A smaller margin of victory for the LDP would spark a search for another coalition partner among the myriad smaller parties. The likely candidates include the Japan Restoration Party, a new far-right group led by the outspoken former governor of Tokyo, Shintaro  Ishihara, that some polls have put in second place behind the LDP.

But Abe would do well to avoid a partnership with the restoration party, says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. Mr. Ishihara, he said, would “draw attention to himself and provoke China, even though he doesn’t represent popular opinion. Does the LDP really want to associate itself with the kind of things that Ishihara says? He would only complicate matters.”

In the early days of the campaign, Abe’s rightwing rhetoric came close to matching Ishihara’s. He hinted he would “revise” a previous prime ministerial apology for Japan’s wartime conduct, questioned claims that Japan had used Asian women as sex slaves during its 20th-century wars in Asia, and said he regretted not visitingYasukuni shrine – which honors the country’s war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals – during his last stint as prime minister.

But some analysts believe he will take a more conciliatory approach toward China – Japan’s biggest trading partner – once the realities of political office kick in, citing his fence-mending visit to Beijing soon after he became prime minister six years ago.

“For all his nationalist credentials, I suspect Abe will be more pragmatic, ” says JohnSwenson-Wright, senior consulting fellow for Asia at Chatham House. “If he’s in this for the long game and wants to last longer as prime minister than he did the first time, he certainly has the motivation to be more pragmatic.”

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