Japan chose a new leader: what can we expect from Shinzo Abe?

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Japanese voters have spoken.  On December 16, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 294 out of 480 seats in the House of Representatives (Lower House) election and marked a resounding victory over the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), ending its three-year rule. LDP leader Shinzo Abe is expected to begin to put together his cabinet appointments on or around December 26th.  Whether Abe will be able to establish a stable government depends on the choices he will make in the next 4-6 months.     

Alarmist analyses premature

Prior to the election, a great deal of attention was given to LDP’s very conservative policy platform.  Not only Beijing and Seoul but also many in Washington, DC were concerned about the likelihood of Abe, if elected, pursuing a nationalistic agenda that will spark new tension in East Asia.  Indeed, a day after the election in Tokyo, media in Beijing and Seoul are already discussing their concerns about Abe’s policies. 

Such concerns are understandable given Abe’s known position on the issues associated with Japan’s wartime past and his campaign platforms that supported a robust US-Japan alliance, national defense spending increase, constitutional revision that would allow Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF)’s legal status to be converted to a national defense force (kokubo-gun) and enable Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense.  Also, wariness toward Chinese and Korean behavior over the disputed islands has resonated with the  Japanese public.  Still, attributing LDP’s victory to the resurgence of Japanese nationalism is not only short-sighted, but misunderstands the underlying dynamics for this election. 

First and foremost, Sunday’s election was NOT about supporting LDP’s return to the government.  Rather, it was about condemning DPJ’s incompetence for the last three years.  DPJ’s complete defeat-it was able to win only 54 seats and eight cabinet members under Prime Minister Noda and some of major DPJ figures such as former chief cabinet secretary Yoshito Sengoku lost their seats -is an unambiguous reflection of the voters’ deep disappointment with the DPJ’s ability to govern.   In other words, the voters cast their ballots to LDP candidates not because they supported LDP’s policy platform, but because they regarded the LDP as “lesser of the two evils”, at least knowing better how to run the government. 

Moreover, for the vast majority of Japanese voters, foreign and defense policies were least of their concerns.  According to the poll taken by the Asahi Shimbun on December 11 and 12 (note that the polls were taken in the midst of North Korea’s missile test), 61% of the respondents chose economic revitalization (keiki taisaku) as the most important issue for them, while only 15-16% attached the highest priority to foreign affairs and national security issues.  The Japanese economy continues to struggle, due to the 3-11 triple disaster and strong yen. Average income has been in downward trajectory.   Young people suffer an unemployment rate over 8%, almost the double of national average.  Under such circumstances, Japanese voters are desperate for the government to implement policies that can facilitate growth. 

Finally, the failure of the smaller political parties to gain voters’ confidence further helped the LDP.  In particular, the failure by Nihon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) to emerge as a credible alternative conservative political force helped the LDP a great deal throughout the campaign period.   In short, the LDP did not win for its own merits, but thanks to others failure.  This means that the voters will willingly punish the LDP if they see no sign of progress once Abe takes office.  With the Upper House election scheduled for the summer of 2013, the voters will have a perfect occasion to express their short-term evaluation next year, merely eight months after Abe cabinet is put in place.

Abe expected to take a cautionary approach   

Given a relatively short time Abe has to impress the voters, he must turn his attention immediately to the government’s FY 2012 supplemental budget and FY2013 budget.  The government’s FY2013 budget, which should have been approved by the end of December 2012 under the regular budgetary schedule, has been delayed due to the election.  It is incumbent upon Abe’s new government to ensuring that these budgetary issues will be managed with minimal delay.  This would leave little time and political capital for Abe to spend on any other issues at least the LDP wins the Upper House election in the summer of 2013. 

Abe is also under the pressure to prove that he learned from the mistakes he made when he first served as the prime minister.  Abe, during his brief tenure as the prime minister between 2006-2007, was criticized for his poor choices in personnel appointments (his government was often ridiculed as “school pal cabinet (otomodachi naikaku)”) as well as his inability to prioritize among the policy issues that Japan must address (i.e., sustaining the momentum for economic reform) over the issues that he is ideologically drawn to (i.e., revision of the constitutional interpretation on Japan’s exercise of the right of collective self-defense).   As much as the Japanese voters may want their government to be assertive on the issues of Japan’s critical national interest such as sovereignty rights, they do not want the Japanese government to further aggravate tensions with Japan’s neighbors. Finally, Komeito, the political party which Abe has already indicated to form the coalition with, will likely to restrain Abe from pursuing overly aggressive foreign and security policies.

Indeed, Abe seems to be well aware of such sentiment.  Appearing in a television interview following the election, a sober-looking Abe said: “basically, (the election results) does not mean that the LDP regained voters’ confidence.  Rather, we will be placed under a strict scrutiny by them.”   

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