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Three years after a crushing defeat, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) returned to power Sunday with a landslide victory over the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Shinzo Abe will get a second chance as prime minister after stepping down unceremoniously in 2007. Yet even before he starts work, critics are warning of a dangerous shift to the right in Japanese politics.
They are wrong. They misunderstand how conservative the DPJ became during its time in office, and similarly how much the LDP has turned leftward on domestic issues. Mr. Abe faces a daunting task at home, but he hardly represents the kind of resurgent nationalism that could plunge Asia into crisis
Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has presided over a defeat as great as any faced by a Japanese leader. The DPJ lost nearly 200 seats in the lower house of the Diet, winning only 57 as of press time. At least five current ministers lost their seats, as did former Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Mr. Abe’s LDP won at least 291 of 480 seats in the lower house. With its junior partner, the New Komeito Party (which won 30 seats), the LDP will command a two-thirds supermajority that will allow it to override the DPJ-controlled upper house.
Yet the LDP’s victory also revealed significant weaknesses. Voter turnout was a full 10 percentage points lower from 2009. The LDP never polled higher than 30% among respondents in polls, while well over a third of all Japanese polled were undecided or supported no party.
Viewed from that angle, the LDP’s victory was clearly a referendum on the DPJ’s failings, and not a robust vote of confidence in the conservatives. Mr. Abe himself recognizes this, stating that it was three years of “political confusion” by the DPJ that soured voters, and that trust in his party has not recovered from his previous poor performance.
Yet voters also know that there is not that much difference between the parties. Unlike international commentators, they don’t fear that Mr. Abe is a renegade nationalist looking to spark a crisis with China.
On foreign issues, Japan’s current and future leaders are much closer than critics recognize. Mr. Abe is often smeared as a nationalist, yet he improved relations with China last time in office. True, he called this year for an increase in Japan’s military spending, but this won’t mean much materially. Tokyo’s defense budget has gradually declined in the past decade, as Beijing’s has seen double-digit increases.
And Mr. Abe’s plan to rename the Self-Defense Forces the National Defense Forces is irrelevant at best. Hyperbolic criticism of the idea is a card played only by those who have an allergy to any type of credible Japanese defense capability.
More significantly, critics fail to recognize just how hawkish the DPJ became in recent years. Current Prime Minister Noda decided to buy the F-35 stealth fighter and two helicopter carriers, and also modified a decades-old ban on arms exports. Even the more liberal Mr. Kan approved the release of a new national strategy document in 2010 that highlighted the threat to Japanese territory posed by China’s military buildup and called for a new policy of “dynamic defense,” to replace Tokyo’s traditionally passive stance.
The DPJ also continued ballistic missile defense testing with the U.S. and pushed for a more assertive trilateral response with South Korea and America over North Korean aggression. In recent months, Mr. Noda has pushed back against Chinese attempts to claim the disputed Senkaku Islands, regularly dispatching Coast Guard and air units.
On economic issues as well, Mr. Abe doesn’t seem to have moved too far from Mr. Noda. The centerpiece of his economic policy during the campaign was monetary easing. That may help move Japan out of deflation, but with the economy contracting over the last two quarters, the country has slipped back into recession. He may discover that easier money won’t help a real recovery without real incentives for investment or a credible reform plan that tackles the country’s over-regulation.
Mr. Abe has also indicated he will rely on stimulus spending to jump-start the economy, which follows the original plans of the DPJ when it came to power in 2009. This is a turn-around for Mr. Abe, who eschewed such ideas his first time in office, after years of pump-priming by the LDP in the 1990s failed to turn the economy around.
Moreover, Mr. Abe has indicated his support for the controversial sales tax increase that doomed Mr. Noda’s electoral chances. However, unlike Mr. Noda who once favored a big multilateral trade pact, Mr. Abe has put forward no concrete ideas for liberalization, such as increasing foreign-direct investment in Japan or streamlining the approval process for foreign medical and food products.
The bottom line is that Mr. Abe is no warmonger, nor will he radically change Japan’s foreign and security policies. He will be likely to continue Japan’s current approach to China and North Korea.
Where Mr. Abe does face pitfalls is in coming up with a clear growth plan that encourages investment and innovation. Then again, neither did the DPJ. The economy is what Japan’s voters really care about, and they seem to have had enough of the DPJ to at least give the LDP a chance. The rest of the world should respect their judgment and not fear Japan’s new leaders.
Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin
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