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Last updated: December 16, 2012 5:26 pm
Seldom in politics has there been a revival of electoral fortunes as rapid and dramatic as that enjoyed on Sunday by Japan’s Liberal Democratic party.
Just three years ago, the conservative LDP suffered a crushing general election defeat by the insurgent Democratic party that seemed to spell an end to a domination of Japanese politics that had endured for more than half a century.
Yet on Sunday, the LDP won one of its most resounding victories, seizing a large majority in the Diet’s 480-seat lower house. Along with its small ally Komeito, it even secured a two-thirds supermajority that will allow it to set a legislative agenda without fear of being blocked by the Diet’s less powerful upper chamber.
It was a stunning victory for Shinzo Abe, the LDP leader and now prime minister-in-waiting – and one with potentially far reaching implications for the world’s third-largest economy and its relations with the US, China and other regional neighbours.
Mr Abe’s plans to raise Japan’s defence spending and ease limits on the use of its already potent Self Defence Forces are welcomed by many in Washington, where policy makers have long hoped for a more confident and assertive regional ally.
But many in China and South Korea are deeply suspicious of Mr Abe’s desire to rewrite Japan’s pacifistic postwar constitution in order to allow the nation to emerge as a full regional military power.
Mr Abe has also questioned Tokyo’s past apologies for its conduct during the occupation of China and South Korea in the first half of the 20th century. He has said he hopes to pay his respects as prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the Japan’s war dead – including some convicted war criminals – are commemorated.
This stance infuriates many in Beijing and Seoul, where bitter memories of Japan’s brutal invasion run deep. Tensions have also risen further by the flaring of separate territorial disputes between Japan and both China and South Korea.
The most immediate foreign challenge facing Mr Abe is the crisis over the Senkaku Islands, a Japanese-controlled uninhabited archipelago in the East China Sea.
China – which calls the islands the Diaoyu – says they were stolen by Tokyo in the 19th century. In recent months, Beijing has stepped up efforts to test Japan’s control of them, most dramatically last week by sending a government aircraft through the archipelago’s territorial airspace.
Mr Abe has called for more robust efforts to prevent such incursions and his LDP has suggested it could seek to station government officials on the islands – a move that analysts in China say would provoke unprecedented fury from Beijing and could even lead to war between the two Asian powers.
“The question is what China does now. If they continue to ratchet up the pressure then that will play into the hands of Abe and other right-wingers in the LDP because it will build public support for more nationalist policies,” says Gerry Curtis, a Japan expert at Colombia University. “If the Chinese have any sense …they will cool things down.”
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency on Sunday, said that “to build a new Japan, the incoming leadership, first of all, has to find a way to manage its differences with neighbours”.
Many around Mr Abe – who actually presided over a warming of Sino-Japanese ties during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-07 – have been advising him to focus on shoring up a faltering economy rather than more ideological projects.
At his final campaign rally in Tokyo on Saturday, Mr Abe won cheers when he vowed to push a large-scale public works programme and to press the Bank of Japan for a more aggressive monetary policy that might tame deflation and to boost manufacturers by weakening the yen.
Yet the sheer speed and scale of the LDP’s revival is itself a warning to the party. Japanese voters are becoming increasingly tough on incumbent parties. As Mr Abe and his colleagues acknowledged, Sunday’s result was more a rejection of the DPJ’s poor performance in government than a whole-hearted endorsement of the LDP. At a polling station in downtown Tokyo, Etsuko Morita spoke for many when she said she backed the LDP with only limited enthusiasm.
“It’s a shame, but the only way to decide how to vote was by a process of elimination,” said the 29-year-old housewife.
Such tepid support is a reminder that voter favour is likely to be fickle. With the LDP’s next electoral test – an upper house election – just eight months away, it is a reminder that Mr Abe cannot afford to ignore.
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