The Liberal Democratic Party’s overwhelming victory Sunday means hawkish Shinzo Abe is going to be prime minister again.
But the election did not turn out this way because the LDP or Abe are particularly popular, but rather because the Democratic Party of Japan is so unpopular, and the real test for the LDP-New Komeito coalition will come in the Upper House election next summer, political analysts said.
“Voters did not seek a new choice, but wanted to punish the DPJ,” said Takeshi Sasaki, a professor of politics and noted analyst at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. The LDP’s win “doesn’t mean voters hold the policies advocated by the party in high regard. If you interpret the results that way, it would be a mistake.”
In fact, media polls have suggested Abe isn’t particularly popular, signaling the possibility that the LDP-New Komeito alliance could see a defeat in the Upper House election as voters have often swung back to the other side after giving one party a landslide win in a Lower House election.
Abe seems to be well aware of this.
Appearing live on TV, a grim-faced Abe said Sunday’s victory doesn’t mean voters gave “100 percent” approval to the LDP. Instead, they moved to “end three years of chaos” under DPJ rule, he said.
“Unless we meet voters’ expectations of voters, their support for us will vanish. With that in mind, we should maintain a sense of tension” in running the government, he said.
Thus, the analysts predict, the LDP-New Komeito bloc will focus first on the economy — concentrating on massive spending and monetary easing — rather than moving on any controversial security policies or the constitutional revision that Abe has advocated.
“The Lower House and Upper House have been divided. So issues about the Constitution will be ‘sealed’ until the Upper House election in summer,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.
“For now, (Abe) will focus on achieving economic growth with monetary-easing measures, jump-starting the economy and thereby fixing the divided Diet” by winning the Upper House, Kawakami said.
The LDP has called for massive public works spending despite snowballing government debt and the looming fiscal crisis. For starters, Abe’s government will likely compile a supplementary budget for fiscal 2012 that could total several trillion yen, probably financed through the issuance of government bonds.
Many economists doubt Abe’s economic policies will have long-lasting effects, though they might provide a temporary boost.
Data suggest the LDP has good reason to focus on the economy before the Upper House election.
An NHK poll conducted from Dec. 7 to 10 asked voters who would be more qualified to lead the nation, Abe or incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the DPJ.
As much as 47 percent of the 2,679 respondents said “neither” are qualified, while 28 percent preferred Abe versus 19 percent for Noda.
During the campaign, Abe repeatedly painted himself as a decisive leader who can be tough against China or North Korea and discussed with pride his wish to revise the pacifist Constitution.
But when the Asahi Shimbun asked voters what issue was most important to them, “policy measures to boost the economy” came out on top with 61 percent, followed by nuclear power-related issues in second place. Only 15 percent named “diplomacy and national security issues.”
“I voted for the LDP because I think you can expect more from the party as far as economic measures are concerned,” said a 52-year-old man who only gave his family name, Minobe, at a polling station in Kawasaki.
Even if the LDP survives the Upper House election, Abe will face a second challenge as early as next fall, according to Gakushuin’s Sasaki.
That is when the government, as required by law, will have to assess economic conditions and decide whether to raise the unpopular consumption tax to 8 percent in April 2014. The tax is set to be raised again to 10 percent in October 2015.
Abe will also remember his bitter experience with swing voters in the past.
When he became prime minister in fall 2006, he had a support rate of 65 percent, according to a NHK poll. But the LDP suffered a crushing defeat in the Upper House election the following July, winning a paltry 37 seats of the 121 contested. The LDP lost its place as the No. 1 party in the chamber for the first time since its inception in 1955.
Abe stepped down in September 2007, citing health reasons that have largely been attributed to the mental stress he suffered through that election and the aftermath.
To secure a majority in the Upper House, analysts say the LDP may try to form an alliance with other conservative parties, most notably Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party.
And with the DPJ suffering a devastating defeat Sunday, some of its right-leaning members may jump ship and spur a major realignment of the existing parties.
Many Japanese are concerned that Abe, who has called for stationing a Self-Defense Forces unit on the disputed Senkaku Islands, will antagonize China and South Korea.
Sasaki said that whether Abe will trigger a foreign policy crisis will depend largely on external factors, such as the diplomatic postures of the new governments in China and South Korea, and public sentiment, rather than his own hawkish beliefs.
The new administration will be preoccupied with domestic issues, he said.
“I think (Abe’s government) will first use its energy to keep external factors in check,” Sasaki predicted.
Abe has denied he will harm ties with China should he become prime minister, citing the “inseparable” economic interdependency between the two countries.
“Japan has invested in China and raised profits from it, while China has generated more than 10 million jobs with investments from Japan,” he wrote in an article for the latest issue of the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju.
“It’s an inseparable relationship” and branding him as a politician capable of causing a war with China is “unrealistic,” Abe wrote.