The Resurrection of Shinzo Abe

Will HobartCOUNCILLOR’S COLUMN: The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on September 26 elected Shinzo Abe as its president, marking the return of the former Prime Minster’s leadership of the party. Previously, Abe resigned as the Prime Minster of Japan and the LDP leader in September 2007 claiming bad health, but at the time his leadership had been plagued by numerous scandals such as the loss pension fund assets and cabinet conduct. At the time, the LDP only had a approval rating of approximately 30 per cent.

Abe is a conservative blue blood; his former premiership saw some early wins in the form of a hard line on DPRK and rapprochement with China. He was a disciple of former PM Junchiro Koisumi, and like his predecessor gained negative attention from China for his visits to Yasukuni shrine (albeit not as PM). In defense, Abe was a strong supporter of Article 9 reform. Given the current crises between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, it has been largely cited that Abe could act as an incendiary element between Japan and its immediate neighbours. Furthermore, Abe could strike a chord in the current environment of growing conservative and nationalist elements in the Japanese constituency – potentially swinging favour back to the LDP amid appalling polls for the DPJ (19 per cent). That said, Abe faces a significant challenge if he is to assume the premiership once again in the next election, while former LDP leader Tanigaki has done little to put the LDP in a winning position.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government has lost 70 lawmakers, (including their shadow kingpin Ichiro Ozawa and a Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka for Yakuza ties). However, the departure of Ozawa, a charismatic and enduring figure, could in some ways assist the DPJ due to his polarising nature. The dysfunction of Japanese internal politics is at a height yet again. Some saw this as an opportunity for regionalist and spin-off party gains, such as the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai) (JRP) led by Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto. Though these options are untested and could face immense public scepticism, while optimists foresee the ability of their party to join the regionalist JRP to form a majority government. Come election time, Noda can at least present the case for sound leadership, he managed to pass the controversial consumption tax, took a hard line on the island dispute with China: in essence, despite poor polls for the party, he can still deprive the LDP of the votes it needs.  A recent Nikkei poll cited the following figures. 

  • 35 per cent of the respondents said they would vote for Abe’s LDP at the next election, higher than the 14 per cent who planned to support DPJ.
  • Preferred leader: 41 per cent named Abe, compared to just 28 per cent who favoured Noda.
  • At 37 per cent, the overall support rate for the LDP surged 12 percentage points since the Nikkei’s last poll in August and hit the highest level since the party conceded power to the DPJ three years ago
  • Support for the DPJ declined 2 percentage points to 19 per cent
  • Further diluting the support for the ruling party, 12 per cent of the respondents said they would vote for the Japan Restoration Party.
  • As for the question regarding the East China Sea islands at the heart of the current dispute with China, 66 per cent of the respondents said they approved Noda’s decision to purchase them from a private owner, compared to 21 per cent who opposed it. 

China may have been frustrated by the inexperienced and fragmented policy actions by DPJ politicians (both Kan and Noda) and as a result, may in fact look to the next election as a chance to change the status-quo. In any case, Abe could go either way, by encouraging greater rapprochement with China, or, increased hawkishness leading to bilateral deterioration. Abe recently said he would challenge the ban on collective security, allowing Japan to come to the defense of allies that fall under military attack. If this were to occur it would represent a fundamental normalisation of the Japanese armed forces – something in the making for the last decade or more.

But one must also accept the disempowered position individual leaders actually have, especially in Japanese system and zeitgeist. Japan’s ability to change the status quo in any situation is somewhat mitigated by political inefficiency. The degree to which Abe will be confined to this scenario is dependent on Japanese public opinion, and how much Abe can skirt the powerful bureaucracy and impotence of the Diet. 

Ultimately, Abe may not be as threatening to China as the media are saying. Abe was the driving force behind rapprochement between Japanese and Chinese ties six years ago, today, the Japanese and Chinese economies are increasingly interdependent. Abe as Premier will have to walk a fine line between appeasement of the growing right wing in Japan and economic interests abroad – first however and perhaps more difficult, Abe needs to win the election.

William Hobart is a Councillor at the AIIA NSW.

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