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Japan's main opposition Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leader and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Photo: REUTERS/Shohei Miyano)
Image: Reuters

Old guard

Martin Fritz / rc
December 17, 2012

Japan's long-standing party of power has emerged as the winner of elections. Amid disappointment over failed reforms, the country is braced for a shift to the right which could go further than anticipated.


Japanese politics is characterized by déjà vu. Shinzo Abe's conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which governed Japan almost constantly between 1955 and 2009, has achieved a landslide win the the country's general election.

The country essentially finds itself turning to the past. Abe, who served for a year in office as prime minister from September 2006, promises a "more beautiful Japan" and wants to restore the economy to its former glory with the building of bridges, roads and dams.

The nuclear accident at Fukushima has not played a decisive role. While more than half of the Japanese population has called for an end to atomic energy, the majority of voters have put the same LDP that made Japan a nuclear nation back into power.

Even the former LDP warhorse, Shintaro Ishihara, is making a return to the national stage, after 13 years as the mayor of Tokyo, winning a significant share of the vote with his nationalist Japan Restoration Party (JRP).

Right-wing demands 'strong Japan'

Ishihara, a staunch nationalist, expressed himself bluntly ahead of the election. "Japan is like the Titanic - with the orchestra playing even while the ship is sinking," the 80-year-old told his audience during the campaign. He went on to call for a "strong Japan, one that will not sink" and appealed for the abolition of the "feudalism" of the country's elite officials.

As the Mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara had himself made the moves that forced Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda into buying three of the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, which Beijing also claims as its sovereign territory.

The Japanese coast guard on patrol (Photo: Ralph Goldmann)
Japan's right want the country to assert itself more over the disputed islandsImage: picture alliance/R. Goldmann

This, in September, triggered the worst ever ant-Japanese riots in China. And yet it was not enough for the right wing stalwart.

"I cannot allow myself to die until my Japan, which has been made a fool of by China, and seduced as a mistress by the United States, is able to stand up again as a stronger, more beautiful nation," said Ishihara.

It could still be the case that Ishihara ends up determining the balance of power.

Disappointment with the reformers

After three years in opposition, the LDP has made a strong comeback, with voters feeling bitterly disappointed with the reformers of the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

"The DPJ has hardly made good on any of its promises," the leftist publicist Minoru Morita admitted. The expansion of the welfare state failed because of a lack of money while the curtailment of bureaucratic power fell short because of a lack of know-how. In three years, the politically factional party changed it premier three times. At the time of Japan's catastrophic tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear incident, the DPJ government showed itself to have been overwhelmed.

Japan's main opposition Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe, center, leaves the Yasukuni Shrine (Photo: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
Abe has stoked tensions with China, not least by visiting the Yasukuni ShrineImage: dapd

The frustration of voters gave LDP head Shinzo Abe the chance to realize his nationalist agenda. Patrick Köllner, director of the Hamburg Institute for Asian Studies, describes Abe as a "conservative hardliner." Abe wants to reform the constitution that was imposed by the United States during its occupation, which obliges Japan to be a pacifist nation. The "Japanese Self-Defense Forces," says the LDP, should in the future become simply known as "Armed Forces," and it should be allowed to return fire during UN mission - a proposed return to normality such as that that took place in Germany after reunification.

Provocation of China

Abe has laced his project with nationalist undertones, which have left a nasty taste in the mouths of Japan's neighbors. He denies Japanese war crimes such as the enslavement of thousands of women into prostitution. He wants to increase defense spending to limit China's dominance. Demonstratively, he threw down the gauntlet to Beijing in visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine to Japan's war dead and also met the Dalai Lama.

By not taking on board Japan's wartime guilt, Abe has strengthened the perception of a nation harking back to its imperial past.

Pre-election polls had shown that the LDP alongside its junior partner New Komeito would win an absolute majority in the lower house. Abe also needed a two-thirds majority there to override the veto powers of the upper house. Without this majority, the political deadlock of the past two years would continue until at least the summer of 2013, when half of the upper house is re-elected. A two-thirds majority is also needed for any changes to be made to the constitution.

Japan Restoration Party leader and nationalist former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara (2nd R) and his deputy and popular Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto (Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)
Ishihara and Hashimoto are eager to establish their right-wing party as the third force in Japan's politicsImage: Reuters

As the results stand, the LDP won 294 of the lower house’s 480 seats, while New Komeito gained 31 seats.

Right-wing coalition against deadlock

Abe had already rejected the offer of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to form a grand coalition with the DPJ, even though Noda is a moderate conservative and the party, after so many resignations, remains rooted to the political center-ground.

The possibility remains of a partnership with Ishihara's JRP. However, that party's founder is the 43-year-old Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, whose politics are bound with the electorate's disillusionment with established parties.

"Politicians do nothing for the people and never tell the truth," Hashimoto, called down to the crowd from the election bus, while standing alongside Ishihara, twice his age. In an effort to become Japan's "third force" in politics, the two politicians have also highlighted their differences with other parties over nuclear power.

Polls predicted that the JRP would garner 35 to 50 percent of seats. In the end, it won 54. That could be a sufficient number to wield influence and help push Japan even further to the right than Abe had already planned.

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