Japan’s main conservative party pulled off an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s election, giving its leader, Shinzo Abe, a mandate to pursue his hawkish security agenda and abandon the country’s pledge to phase out nuclear power.
The result marked a dramatic comeback for Abe’s Liberal Democratic party (LDP), just three years after it was ousted in a landslide win for the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
Exit polls indicated the LDP was on course to win around 300 seats, and its traditional ally, New Komeito, about 30 seats. Combined, that would secure them a two-thirds majority in the 480-seat lower house, enabling them to override attempts to block legislation by the upper house, where no single party has overall control.
That “supermajority” would end the policy deadlock that has restrained Japan for the past five years, as it attempts to end two decades of economic stagnation and address ballooning welfare and pension bills.
Abe to focus on economy
Abe, 58, who resigned as prime minister in 2007 amid ill health and scandals involving his cabinet ministers, signaled he would make the economy his priority. "First and foremost we have to bring about an economic recovery and pull Japan out of deflation," he said on TV after his party’s victory was assured.
The current prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, whose DPJ is expected to win just 65 seats – about a fifth of the number it won in 2009 – said he would resign as party leader to take responsibility for its heavy defeat.
"The result reflects a public assessment of our three years and three months in power,” Goshi Hosono, the DPJ’s policy chief, said in a TV interview. "The party leadership, including myself, must take responsibility for that.”
Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says the LDP had benefited from public anger over the DPJ’s broken promises.
“The DPJ’s slogan three years ago was putting people’s livelihoods first, but then Noda increased the consumption tax, and that was seen by voters as a fundamental betrayal,” Nakano says. “The Japanese electorate is consistent in punishing the governing party if it feels it has been lied to.”
Shigeru Ishiba, the LDP’s general secretary, said the new administration’s work would begin immediately. “This is a tremendous result, but we have a whole host of issues confronting us, including the economy and national security. The people have expectations of us, and we have to respond to them quickly."
Rockier China relations?
Abe’s victory could complicate ties with China, with which it is embroiled in a territorial dispute that has harmed trade ties between Asia’s two biggest economies. Known for his hawkish views, he has promised to take a tougher stance towards Beijing over rival claims to the Senkaku islands – known as the Diaoyu in China – and to revise the constitution to give Japan’s military a more prominent role.
A commentary on the website of China's official Xinhua news agency called on the victor in Sunday’s election to repair ties with its neighbors and take a long-term approach to regional stability.
It described as a "troubling sign" that some parties, including Abe’s, have pledged to take a tough line on territorial disputes and boost military spending.
Nakano says Abe’s commanding victory would give momentum to his hawkish security agenda. “During his campaign to lead the LDP, he said he regretted moderating his stance on China the first time he was prime minister,” Nakano says. “This is his last chance, so will he want to go down as someone who moderates his views when in office, or as a conviction politician? My feeling is that he’ll go for the latter."
On the economy – the single biggest issue of the campaign – Abe has pledged to return to high spending on public works and ease monetary policy to boost growth.
The election also saw the emergence of a third force in the form of the Japan Restoration party, a far-right group led by the outspoken former governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, that was predicted to win around 46 seats.
At one point polls suggested the restoration party could overtake the DPJ as the country’s second-biggest party and act as power broker in a hung parliament. That level of influence now looks unlikely, but LDP officials suggested the new administration could turn to Ishihara for support if it decides to proceed with constitutional reform – a shared ideological goal.
“Our priority is our coalition with New Komeito,” Ishiba said, “Then we’ll think about how to coordinate with other parties, such as the Japan restoration party, especially on security issues.
”The LDP, which governed for all but 11 months between 1955 and 2009, capitalized on popular anger over the DPJ government's failure to deliver on a promise to replace pork-barrel politics with a new focus on families, welfare, and healthcare.
Instead, uncertainty over the economy and Japan's response to the rise of China appears to have sent voters reaching for the familiar – big spending on public works to boost growth, and more emphasis on boosting Japan’s ability to defend its shores.