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Abe's new ambitions

Julian Ryall, TokyoDecember 22, 2014

Armed now with overwhelming majorities in both houses of Japan's parliament, PM Shinzo Abe feels he has the mandate to push his economic reforms harder, rewrite the constitution, and restart idle nuclear reactors.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), claps during an election night event at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, December 14, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)
Image: Reuters/I. Kato

It has not taken Prime Minister Shinzo Abe long to make clear his policy goals in the aftermath of his general election victory on December 14.

Emboldened by an overwhelming mandate in the Lower House of the Diet, combined with similarly commanding control of the Upper House, Abe now feels that he has the public support to force through economic reforms and other policies that had stalled in the months leading up to the vote.

And he clearly also possesses the political will to push ahead with his existing legislative agenda and set into motion new initiatives that could, over the coming years, dramatically alter Japan's social and political landscape.

His first priority, however, is to get "Abenomics" back on track.

An election official sorts through ballot papers at a counting centre in Tokyo, December 14, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)
Abe's victory is not a validation of his policies, say expertsImage: Reuters/T. Peter

'All about the economy'

"At the outset, it is all going to be about the economy," Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, told DW. "There have been some negative numbers in recent months and Abe will be aware that the fundamentals of his economic reforms could be undermined if he does not push ahead with the structural reforms that he promised."

Kotani says there are some very tough issues that Abe needs to tackle. "We can add the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement as well as restarting the nuclear power plants - but his coalition does have two-thirds of the seats in the house, so he does have the political capital."

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party won 290 of the 475 seats that were being contested in the election, with junior partner Komeito taking an additional 35. That absolute majority means that the LDP will chair and have a majority in all standing committees in the Diet, giving the prime minister immense power.

The United States has been swift to congratulate Abe on his victory, with Washington equally pleased at his immediate insistence that he will continue to place the utmost importance on Japan's security and economic ties with the US.

Okinawa policy intact

The Japanese leader also went out of his way just hours after being re-elected to state that he would push ahead with the deeply contentious plan to relocate the functions of the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Base to an enlarged facility at Camp Schwab, on the northeast coast of Okinawa.

Moving the Marines to Camp Schwab, which will trigger a broader realignment of US forces in the region, is "the only solution," the prime minister said.

It has been bitterly resisted by Okinawa residents, however, who rejected LDP candidates in all four single-seat constituencies in the prefecture on Sunday.

China's reaction

China has been a lot more cautious in its response to Abe's win. In a press briefing in Beijing the day after the election, a government spokesman emphasized, "We hope that Japan can deeply learn lessons from history ... respect the legitimate and reasonable security concerns of regional countries and follow the path of peaceful development."

Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have been warming in recent weeks after several years of chilly bilateral ties, but Beijing will have been disappointed that a more left-leaning government was not installed in Japan.

And while the fierce debate over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands and widely differing interpretations of the two nations' shared history has recently been muted, it would not take much for the finger-pointing to erupt once again.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo November 21, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Yuya Shino)
Abenomics dominated run-up to Japanese electionImage: Reuters/Y. Shino

Constitutional reform

One issue that could trigger an ugly response in China would be Abe acting on his post-election vow to convince the Japanese public that a constitution imposed on the defeated nation after World War II is out of date and needs to be revised.

Specifically, the prime minister is seeking public support to rewrite Article 9, which is the clause that outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes.

"Revising the constitution is a dream that Abe has cherished for many years and, with this degree of support, it looks like he now has the chance to do just that," Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University, told DW.

Ito agrees that the domestic agenda will be focused on the economy but, with his political strength at its zenith, Abe may be tempted to use his new four-year mandate to encourage public debate over the constitution. And he may, in the next election, focus the debate on revising the nation's supreme law in the same way as he was successfully able to make this election all about the economy.

But his critics warn that Abe must be careful about how he throws his political weight around to achieve his legislative aims. They point out, for example, that a mere 59.3 percent of the Japanese public voted in the elections, meaning that the prime minister's mandate is a lot less certain than he might like to think.

And making swift and sweeping decisions on nuclear power, cuts in welfare spending, changes to the constitution, tax hikes and other issues that have an impact on the day-to-day lives of the electorate could come back to haunt him.