Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a political comeback on Wednesday as the elected new head of the leading opposition Liberal Democratic Party. This is the first time that a person who has resigned as prime minister has been re-elected as the top leader of a political party. A big question about Mr. Abe is whether he can regain people’s trust as a political leader because what happened five years ago is still fresh in their minds.
In the July 2007 Upper House election, in which 242 seats were contested, the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the LDP to become the No. 1 party in the chamber. The LDP won 83 seats to the DPJ’s 109 seats. Despite the LDP’s defeat, Mr. Abe refused to take responsibility and continued to serve as the LDP head and prime minister. On Sept. 12, 2007, the very day of the start of questioning by party representatives in Diet plenary sessions, he suddenly resigned as prime minister.
After that, the LDP went downhill and was badly defeated in the August 2009 Lower House election, losing power to the DPJ. Has Mr. Abe reflected on why the LDP lost out as the ruling party? Past LDP administrations did not offer effective policy measures to solve problems related to the weakening of the nation’s middle class and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, which were exacerbated by the neoliberal policies under the LDP administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. As a former Koizumi Cabinet member and as a former prime minister, Mr. Abe shares responsibility for the damage caused by those policies.
Five candidates vied for the leadership post in the first round of voting in the LDP presidential election. Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba came in first (165 votes from local party chapters and 34 votes from Diet members) while Mr. Abe was second (87 and 54 votes, respectively).
Since neither took a majority, a second vote was held in which only Diet members voted. Mr. Abe defeated Mr. Ishiba 108-89. The results suggest that LDP Diet members do not necessarily represent the voices of the LDP rank and file.
Mr. Abe’s victory raises the possibility he may become Japan’s next prime minister because the DPJ is considered likely to lose in the next Lower House election. Therefore, Mr. Abe’s moves must be scrutinized. He is calling for the revision of the war-renouncing Constitution as well as for exercising the right to collective self-defense. These are dangerous proposals as they could undermine the foundations of postwar Japan as a trustworthy member of the international community.
Mr. Abe is also taking a hawkish stance on the sovereignty issue over the Senkaku Islands. He must realize his hard-line position will only complicate the problem with China.