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Japan's main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader Shinzo Abe smiles during a press conference at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on December 17, 2012
Image: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

What now for the LDP?

Julian Ryall
December 18, 2012

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party swept back to power on Sunday with a clear mandate to take off in a more nationalistic direction. But how broad-based is Abe's support among the electorate?


When the election results began to come through on Sunday evening, from constituencies around the country, the scale of the defeat of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan was quickly apparent. Of the 230 seats Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's party held before election day dawned, the party had managed to hang on to a mere 57.

The Liberal Democratic Party, on the other hand, took 294 of the 480 seats that were up for grabs.

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), attends a news conference at his party's election headquarters in Tokyo December 16, 2012
Loser loses all: Yoshihiko Noda after DPJ's devastating defeatImage: Reuters

Mr Noda swiftly announced his resignation and Mr Abe has spent the days since his crushing victory putting together his new government and basking in the warm glow of his return to the post of prime minister.

But political analysts in Japan believe suggestions that the Japanese public has suddenly taken a sharp step to the right may be illusory, while Mr Abe himself may not have as firm a grip on the prime minister's post as the size of his majority in the Lower House of the Diet would suggest.

"I would say this result is more of a damning vote of no-confidence in the outgoing administration rather than any great show of support for the right wing in Japan," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

Staff members for the Tokyo Stock Exchange are about to leave for lunch break, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011
It's the economy, stupid: voters were motivated by fears over the state of the economyImage: AP

Fears over economy

"Most voters were motivated by fears over the state of the economy and how that will directly impact them in terms of job security, personal income, savings and so on," he said.

Nevertheless, Mr Abe wasted no time before setting out his stall on arguably Japan's most pressing and immediate foreign policy issue; dealing with China and the question of the sovereignty of the disputed Senaku Islands, which Beijing claims are its territory and refers to as the Diaoyu archipelago.

In one of his first broadcasts after being assured of winning the election, Mr Abe said Beijing needed to make a better effort to get along with Japan.

"Japan and China need to share the recognition that having good relations is in the national interest of both countries," he said.

"China lacks this recognition a little bit," he added. "I want them to think once again about mutually beneficial strategic relations."

Referring to the sovereignty of the islands, he was even more blunt.

The survey ship Koyo Maru, left, chartered by Tokyo city officials, sails around Minamikojima, foreground, Kitakojima, middle right, and Uotsuri, background, the tiny islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012
Senkaku islands or the Diaoyu archipelago? The dispute is not restricted to the name aloneImage: AP

"China is challenging the fact that (the islands) are Japan's inherent territory," he said. "Our objective is to stop that challenge. We do not intend to worsen the relations between Japan and China."

Message from China

Even before Mr Abe was elected - although the polls indicated that his victory was all but a certainty - China had sent a clear message of what it expects of the new government in Tokyo, with an editorial by the state-run Xinhua news agency warning against growing nationalism in Japan that threatened bilateral ties and peace in the wider region.

"It is a troubling sign that some of the political parties vying for the 480 seats in Japan's lower house of parliament have pledged to take a tough stance on territorial disputes and boost military spending to woo rightist voters," the commentary stated.

"For Japan's new leadership, it is of more urgency for them to save the Japanese economy, which has been plagued by decades of deflation and is in its fourth recession since 2000, than to pick fights with its neighbors."

The Chinese will have been even more alarmed at the success of the Japan Restoration Party, which picked up 54 seats and ran on an even more outspokenly nationalist platform than the LDP. That, however, is hardly surprising given that it was set up by Shintaro Ishihara, the former governor of Tokyo and an advocate of Japan developing nuclear weapons, revising the war-renouncing constitution and enlarging the size and capabilities of Japan's military.

But still the analysts believe the result was a knee-jerk reaction against three years of ineffectual rule and broken promises by the DPJ rather than any great admiration for the right-wing rhetoric of the LDP or any of the other more extreme parties.

"If you look back three years, the public went against the LDP when they voted them out of office back in 2009 because of a failure to deliver, and they have done exactly the same thing again here," said Steven Reed, a professor of Japanese politics at Chuo University.

The emergence of a number of small parties was expected to have an outcome on the final tally, he said, but in the end it appears that when confronted in the voting booth by up to 12 parties, the electorate largely voted for the party that they knew but was not the ruling DPJ. Hence the LDP's huge majority.

Third straight landslide

Jun Okumura, a political analyst with the Eurasia Group, agreed with that explanation of the outcome and pointed out that this is the third landslide in successive general elections.

"Each election has unique and significant elements, but the underlying issue is that the voters are feeling very dissatisfied," he said. "And while Mr Abe has some strong views on certain issues, such as the Senkaku Islands and security, I think he will be very cautious once he formally takes over the reins of power."

He will need to be a pragmatist, Okumura said, he will need to keep the allied New Komeito Party happy - and that political grouping is strongly opposed to any form of military adventurism or expansionist policies - and he will need to keep the US happy.

And the last thing that Washington wants right now is a minor confrontation between Japan and China over some remote and uninhabited rocks blowing up into a full-scale conflagration, he said.

Photo from a Kyodo News aircraft shows the Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian 51 (front) in Japanese territorial waters near the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on Sept. 14, 2012
From confrontation to conflagration? Chinese marine surveillance vessels near the disputed islandsImage: picture alliance/dpa

It will not have escaped the notice of the strategists within the LDP that the party essentially won this election through default and dissatisfaction with the previous administration. The real test of whether it is doing a good job and meeting the public's expectations will come next summer, when elections for the Upper House of the Diet are scheduled to he held.

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