Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition scored a decisive victory in an election held at the weekend – so big that there are suspicions he will lose interest in difficult economic reforms and pursue his nationalist agenda instead.
The victory in the vote for parliament’s upper house gives Mr Abe a stronger mandate for his prescription for reviving the stagnant economy. Ironically perhaps, it could also give MPs in his own party, some of whom have little appetite for painful but vital reforms, more clout to resist change.
Public broadcaster NHK said that Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its partner, the New Komeito party, had won at least 74 of the 121 seats up for grabs in the 242-seat upper house.
With the coalition’s uncontested 59 seats, that ensures it a comfortable majority, tightening Mr Abe’s grip on power.
It also ends a parliamentary deadlock that began in 2007 when Mr Abe, then in his first term as premier, led the LDP to a humiliating upper house defeat that forced him to resign two months later.
Mr Abe, who returned to power after his coalition’s big win in a December lower house poll, repeated yesterday that he would focus on fixing the world’s third-biggest economy with his “Abenomics” mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and a growth strategy including reforms such as deregulation.
“We’ve argued that our economic policies aren’t mistaken, and the public gave us their support. People now want to feel the benefits. The economy indeed is improving,” a weary but confident-sounding Mr Abe said at LDP headquarters.
But some, including Japanese businesses with a big stake in the matter, worry the hawkish leader will shift to focus on the conservative agenda that has long been central to his ideology. That agenda includes revising the post-war pacifist constitution, strengthening Japan’s defence posture and recasting Tokyo’s wartime history with a less apologetic tone.
For now, many experts suggest, Mr Abe is unlikely to turn his back on economic matters as he tries to beef up his so-far disappointing economic reform plans.
“My understanding is that Abe-san has three faces: Abe as right-wing, Abe as a pragmatist, Abe as the economic reformer,” said Shinichi Kitaoka, president of the International University of Japan. “He has been showing the third face so far and will try to do the same after the election.”
Still, Mr Abe is moving toward security policy changes that mark a big shift in a country that has prided itself on pacifist ideals even as it built up a military bigger than Britain’s.
Among those changes are an expected reinterpretation of the constitution to end a self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence, or aiding an ally under attack, such as if an unpredictable North Korea launched a missile attack on the United States.
Another is a review of defence policies that includes a consideration of acquiring the capability to attack enemy bases when an attack is imminent and no other options exist.