Japan's hawkish Abe claims the win, but not a mandate

Shinzo Abe is set to become Japan's seventh prime minister in 6-1/2 years on Dec. 26. While he is known for a tougher line on China, many say he will focus largely on Japan's economy.

Toru Hanai/Reuters
Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party leader and the next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, stands in front of a picture of Japan's national flag as he speaks to the media at the Parliament in Tokyo Tuesday, Dec. 18.

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) may have secured a convincing victory on Sunday, but it can hardly claim a mandate.

The vagaries of the Japanese electoral system and the sheer number of party choices on offer left the LDP with about 30 percent of the popular vote, in an election that saw a postwar low turnout of 59.3 percent.

Incoming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded with a dose of humility, conceding that the LDP had simply benefited from widespread anger with the outgoing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration.

"Our victory this time does not mean trust in the LDP has been completely restored,” he said. “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 DPJ's misguided political leadership.”

Even with control of two-thirds of the lower house as part of an expected alliance with the much smaller New Komeito Party, analysts say Mr. Abe does not have carte blanche to push his right-wing agenda: revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution to give the military a greater role, higher defense spending, and the development of uninhabited islands at the center of a dispute with China.

“This wasn’t a foreign-policy election,” says Robert Dujarric, director of contemporary Asian studies at Temple University. “As in many countries, it was about the economy. Abe clearly has very hawkish instincts, very conservative ones; but, that said, you are not going to see more money for the military.”

'Hawkish Abe' 

Abe, who will be installed as prime minister on Dec. 26, is known for his strong nationalistic stance. (Read more about Abe's tough line here

He quickly brought one of the country’s biggest flash points with China back to the surface upon election and restated Japan’s claim to the Senkaku islands – known by the Chinese as the Diaoyu.  However, he also promised to work “persistently” to improve Sino-Japanese relations.

Though Abe has also angered South Korea by denying that evidence exists for Japan’s use of Asian women as sex slaves before and during the war, Mr. Dujarric believes he will rein in his nationalist tendencies, much as he did when he was prime minister from 2006 to 2007.

“It’s not clear that you will see a dramatically different foreign policy, because the LDP is not united behind Abe’s hawkish stance,” he says. “It’s a very broad church, and includes hawks and people you could almost describe as pacifists.”

China issued a more measured response to Abe’s victory than might have been expected, given the rancor surrounding the territory scuffle of recent months.

"We think the most pressing issue is that Japan must show sincerity and take practical steps to appropriately deal with the present situation and work hard to resolve the issue and improve relations between the two countries," Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, told reporters in Beijing.

In the 48 hours since his victory, Abe’s focus has been almost exclusively on Japan’s economy, stagnant for two decades and now in its fourth recession since 2000.

His prescription includes a return to deficit spending on public works, ending deflation, and weakening the yen to help battered exporters. 

A verdict on Abe’s first few months in office will come earlier than he would have liked, with upper house elections slated for next summer. If he fails to make progress on his economic pledges and succumbs to his nationalist instincts, the criticism at home could be every bit as harsh as that from Beijing and South Korea.

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