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     Dec 20, 2012

Abe will be firm but flexible on Senkakus
By Bert Edstrom

The Lower House elections in Japan ended in gloom for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). After a little more than three years at the pinnacle of political power, the DPJ was roundly rejected, its 57 seats a far cry from the 308 it captured in its 2009 landslide win. Defeat for the DPJ was victory for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and marked a return to power for Shinzo Abe.

The LDP's comeback in the December 16 vote was astounding. The party that has ruled Japan almost single-handedly since 1955 took 294 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives, more than double the 119 it won three years ago. Together with its

companion from the pre-2009 days, the New Komeito party, which got 31 seats, it secured a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. The two parties will once again form the government and Abe, the LDP's leader, will be appointed prime minister, a role he served for one year to 2007.

It seems that the LDP leadership has understood the sentiment of the electorate. In the immediate aftermath, their comments were humble, noting that the result was not so much an expression of enthusiasm for the LDP but a protest against the DPJ. One LDP leader, Yuriko Koike, said on the morning after the ballot that her party had listened to the voters: "Under its years in opposition the LDP has changed a lot," she told Radio Sweden.

Given the resounding rejection of the LDP in the 2009 elections, this should come as no surprise. The change that Koike was keen to stress is presumably one whereby the LDP has adjusted its policies so that they reflect voters' priorities. Anything else would be near suicide for any political party, given the kind of wrath witnessed three years ago. The problem is that the change that the LDP has undergone, as represented by Abe, is far from what the voters have been looking for.

In a way similar to the times when he was a political hopeful and later became prime minister, Abe's agenda is nationalistic. During the election campaign, he focused on a revision of the Peace Constitution, the strengthening of Japan's defense, and lashing out against China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands issue in a way that has inflamed relations.

It is hard to maintain that the issues Abe hammered home during the election campaign reflect the priorities of Japanese people in general. With an economy in the doldrums after racking up what is by now two "lost" decades, with a shattered pension system, mounting expenditure on social security and a demographic that is impressive only in the increasing number of elderly, it's hard to claim that ordinary people are crying out for an agenda that is certain only in its ability to create tension in relations with neighbors. No wonder that the 59% voter turnout in Sunday's election, the lowest in the postwar period, signaled a disinterest in the polling both.

The post-election comments and lack of the customary bragging indicates that at least Abe and his advisers are aware of the fact that they have not been given a carte blanche by voters to impose policies single-handedly. To win an election is one thing, to be in the government ruling the country is a different matter. Given Japan's economic malaise and strained relations with neighbors, it is likely that Abe will shelve at least some of his radical ideas. The matter most likely to be attended to first is the inflammatory Senkaku issue, which continues to poison relations with China, something Japan can ill afford.

Firm but flexible
For Abe as prime minister, the strained relations with China will loom large initially. Judged from his previous stint as Japan's premier (2006 - 2007), it seems likely that he will tread carefully, however strong his rhetoric as a candidate. Before he became prime minister in 2006, he was known as a hardliner, opting for a right-wing swing of Japanese politics. As premier, he tried to implement his agenda but was not particularly successful, but to the surprise of many, he demonstrated unexpected skills in handling relations with China.

Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, had regularly visited the Yasukuni shrine to Japan's war dead, causing Sino-Japanese relations to fall to decline considerably by the time he left office. However, the week after Abe was appointed, he was in Beijing to begin the arduous task of repairing relations with Japan's neighbor, even agreeing with the Chinese leadership that Japan and China were joined in "a strategic and mutually beneficial partnership". In April 2007, he handled the sensitive Yasukuni issue in a way that satisfied his supporters and gave no reason for the Chinese to protest.

Based on Abe's past dealings with China, it can be expected that back in office he will try to be firm but flexible. When he takes over at the end of December, relations with China are an issue that he has to take by the horns.

There is reason to believe that he will do so in a way that defuses the explosive issue. There is a precedent. In 1978, when Japan and China had problems in advancing towards signing a peace and friendship treaty, Japan's then prime minister Takeo Fukuda was the one who acted and signed the treaty on behalf of Japan, to the utter consternation and anger of most fellow LDP politicians. Fukuda, however, saw signing the treaty to be in Japan's national interest. After the ink on the treaty was dry, he prided himself on being the only one who could have achieved the feat by his ability to neutralize adversaries to the treaty within the LDP.

On the inflammatory Senkaku issue, a compromise has to be found. Abe's past career as an outspoken and hard-hitting nationalist is an asset when the rage felt by Japanese conservatives, nationalists and ultranationalists has to be subdued. As was the case with Fukuda back in 1978, no one can question his credentials as a nationalist. Abe can, if he chooses to do so, repeat Fukuda's feat.

Bert Edstrom is a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm, Sweden. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute for Security and Development Policy or its sponsors.

(Copyright 2012 The Institute for Security and Development Policy.) 

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