Japanese voters give boost to 'Abenomics'

The economic reforms put in place by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rest on firmer footing after his party won a comfortable victory in upper house elections Sunday.

Issei Kato/Reuters
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), listens to a question during an interview as rosettes are attached on the names of candidates expected to win, at LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Sunday. Abe's ruling bloc won a decisive victory in Japan's upper house election on Sunday, cementing his grip on power.

Voters in Japan have given the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a mandate to continue with his economic program, after his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner won a comfortable victory in upper house elections on Sunday.

The result means that the governing coalition will hold majorities in both houses of the country’s parliament for the first time in six years, raising hopes of an end to the political deadlock that has seen several prime ministers come and go in quick succession.

In recent years, opposition parties have had control of the upper chamber, enabling them to block or delay legislation in what has become known as a “twisted parliament.”

While a low turnout indicated widespread apathy toward the election – in which half of the upper house’s 242 seats were contested – LDP officials interpreted the result as an endorsement of Abe’s attempts to lift the world's third-biggest economy out of almost two decades of stagnation.

Since becoming prime minister last December, Abe has implemented monetary easing and massive fiscal stimulus, but has yet to explain the third stage of “Abenomics” to address structural problems such as the rapidly ageing population, shrinking workforce, and huge public debt.

"People wanted politics that can make decisions and an administration with a stable grounding, which led to today's result," the LDP’s vice president, Masahiko Komura, told public broadcaster NHK. "'Abenomics' is proceeding smoothly and people want us to ensure the benefits reach them too. That feeling was strong."

Japanese media reported that the coalition was projected to win at least 70 of the 121 seats being contested on Sunday. The official result will be announced early Monday.

Nationalist agenda

With no elections due for another three years, Abe is expected to devote more effort to his nationalist “values agenda,” even at the risk of raising tensions with China and South Korea.

Abe, a hawk whose first term as prime minister in 2006 ended after a year following an upper house defeat and ill health, wants to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to give its self-defense forces a more robust security role.

Any attempt to move away from the military’s strictly defensive role would anger China and South Korea, with which Japan is already embroiled in disputes over island territories.

Abe also faces potentially damaging domestic challenges.

He must decide whether to go ahead with unpopular plans the LDP supported as an opposition party to raise the sales tax from 5 percent to 8 percent next April – a move that some experts could put the brakes on the fledgling economic recovery.

Restarting nuclear

In addition, the LDP is the only party that opposes a phasing out of nuclear power, a measure supported by a slight majority of Japanese voters. Abe is expected to push for the restart of several reactors that were taken offline after the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011.

Currently, only two of Japan’s 50 working reactors are in operation, and Abe and the country's influential business lobby argue that the economic recovery is being hampered by soaring cost of oil and gas imports.

The election dealt another blow to the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ], which ended more than 50 years of LDP domination when it won the general election by a landslide in 2009.

The DPJ was soundly defeated in last December’s lower house election, and was projected to win 21 or fewer seats in Sunday’s upper house poll.

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