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Election 2012: Shinzo Abe returns to power as Liberal Democratic Party wipes out opposition in Japan

Published: 12/17/2012
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Japan's Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the Lower House general election yesterday (16 December), handing power back to the party after it was removed from the helm for only the second time since 1955 three years ago.



IHS Global Insight perspective

 

Significance

The Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito alliance achieved victory in the Lower House election yesterday (16 December), securing 325 seats in the 480-member Lower House.

Implications

The Democratic Party of Japan suffered a massive defeat that saw its seat count in the Lower House reduced from 230 to 57.

Outlook

The attainment of a "supermajority" should ease the passage of legislation, providing a strong political context for the government to implement its key pledges, including more aggressive monetary policy, public works spending to boost economic growth, and a tougher line on territorial disputes with its neighbours.

Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) swept to victory in a Lower House general election held yesterday (16 December), giving former prime minister Shinzo Abe a rare second chance in the leadership position. NHK public television today reported that the LDP had secured 294 seats in the 480-member Lower House. Its long-standing ally the New Komeito Party won 31 seats, giving the alliance a "supermajority", which will allow it to override vetoes in the Upper House and help break policy gridlock in parliament. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) suffered an embarrassing defeat as its seat count fell from 230 to 57. A record seven cabinet ministers, including chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura, lost their single-seat constituencies. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has since said that he will resign from his post. Speaking at a news conference yesterday evening, he said, "We failed to meet the people's hopes after the change of government three years and four months ago… As I am responsible for the defeat, I have decided to resign as party president." The election underscored the rise of a third political force, namely the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), which NHK reported has won at least 53 seats, making it the third largest party in the Lower House. In a sign of the election's failure to enthuse the public, turnout was one of the lowest on record, at roughly 59%.

The victory of the LDP appears to have had more to do with popular frustration towards the DPJ government than pro-active voter support for the party, underscoring the breadth of Japanese disenchantment with the two main political parties. Indeed, the fortunes of the LDP have risen only in tandem with growing public disillusionment towards the DPJ as a result of more than three years of perceived policy flip-flopping and incompetence. Abe acknowledged this fact at a news conference today (17 December), pointing out, "Our victory this time does not mean that trust in the Liberal Democratic Party has been completely restored…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 Democratic Party's misguided political leadership". Interestingly, when the DPJ came to power in 2009, it was also seen as having risen to the helm by benefiting from growing public discontent with the LDP, rather than its own ability to inspire the public (see Japan: 22 June 2009: The Long Goodbye of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party). In both elections, the final result signalled a negative vote, highlighting the victor's role as a negative force in Japanese politics.

Abe's term as prime minister between 2006 and 2007 does not bode well for the country. The political capital built up by Koizumi's rule dissipated under Abe, with his abrupt resignation due to "health reasons" after only one year in office reinforcing the image of the LDP as unable to govern the country effectively. Abe's downfall mainly stemmed from his neglect of the economy; his administration preferred to concentrate on symbolic reforms such as revising the education law and amending the constitution to permit collective self-defence. According to the results of a survey released in September 2007, the real concerns of Japanese citizens at that time concerned medical and pension reform, job creation measures, and improved care for the elderly. His blindness to the country's worries over economic issues led to the LDP's defeat to the DPJ in the Upper House election in 2007. Despite this, Abe was elected leader of the LDP on 26 September, replacing Sadakazu Tanigaki. During his campaign, he has strongly dismissed worries about his health, saying that medical treatment has resolved the problem.

Abe has an extensive list of proposals to push through the legislature. Yesterday, he said that his top priority was to achieve "economic recovery and overcome deflation", which is significant in view of his previous neglect of the issue. He has pledged to shore up flagging economic growth by calling on the Bank of Japan (BOJ) to "pursue unlimited monetary easing to achieve an inflation target of 2%". His meeting with the bank later this week will be closely scrutinised for evidence that it will move in line with the new prime minister's plans. Further, he has promised to boost spending on infrastructure, a pledge that strongly resonated with the population in the northeast, where the devastation of March 2011 is still severe. A package of measures is set for implementation next month, which includes a stimulus budget valued at USD120 billion. Regarding the consumption tax, Abe has said that he will make a decision in late 2013 on whether it will be increased from the current 5% to 8% in April 2014. On the issue of Tokyo's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, he took a purposefully ambiguous stance so as not to alienate himself and the party from the support of farmers who are concerned about a possible wave of cheap agricultural goods. Abe has delayed making a decision on energy policy. However, he has given indications that he will restart more of the suspended nuclear reactors and move away from Kan's strategy of zero reliance. Instead, he has said that the party will devise a plan on the best possible mix of energy sources within the next 10 years.

Abe is known as a foreign policy hawk and has signalled a firmer approach in the formulation of foreign policy. Indeed, he has blamed the DPJ for allowing ties with the United States to deteriorate and for not taking a sufficiently tough approach towards territorial disputes with China, South Korea, and Russia. That said, he responded to news of his victory in a measured way, saying, "Our goal is to stop China from making these challenges… but we do not intend to allow an overall worsening in relations." Further, the New York Times today reported anonymous LDP members saying that Abe's camp had been quietly reaching out to China before the poll. It is important to highlight the fact that Abe proved more pragmatic than expected during his first stint in the leadership position, and oversaw a tangible improvement in ties with China and South Korea following a tumultuous period under the leadership of Junichiro Koizumi, whose frequent visits to the Yasakuni War Shrine caused considerable aggravation to China and South Korea. On mending relations with the US, Abe has already said that his first visit abroad will be to Washington.

Outlook and implications

The LDP victory yesterday signifies not so much a swing to the right for Japanese politics but more a rebuke of the incumbent DPJ and general discontent with the viability of its policies during its time in power. Abe's return to power hands him another opportunity to pick up where he left off five years ago. He will be the seventh prime minister in Japan in just six years. On a positive note, the attainment of an LDP-New Komeito "supermajority" in the Lower House should give the new leader the chance to implement his much-trumpeted campaign promises to boost the economy through an increase in spending on public works, and to push the BOJ to adopt more aggressive monetary easing measures to rein in deflation. It should also ease the passage of legislation and remove roadblocks that have dogged his predecessors. However, it will not be an easy path. Aside from slowing economic growth, the prime minister inherits a long list of problems, including crises in a number of different fields, ranging from fiscal and demographic to health, pensions, and employment. With an Upper House election scheduled for July 2013, the new prime minister will not have much time to live up to his rhetoric.

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