30 December, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
Shinzo Abe created history in Japanese politics in the elections that was held recently.. He became the first Prime Minister since the Second World War to return to office after losing it. He is a protégé of Junichiro Koizumi, one of the most successful and longest serving Prime Minister of post Second World War Japan. He has a few other credentials from family linkages. His father was the Japanese Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Nakasone. His grandfather from his mother’s side was Nobusuke Kishi, the Prime Minister of Japan (1957-60). Thus when he became the youngest Prime Minister of Japan in 2007, he was expected to bring credit to himself, his office and his family name.
Yet he had to quit as a disappointment as a Prime Minister although he cited health reason for stepping down. His failure together with failures of Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso resulted to a large extent in the resounding defeat of the LDP in the 2009 elections. That he came back, first to be the President of the LDP and then to lead the party to a resounding victory is to say the least, dramatic, in the politics of a country that does not believe in political drama. In fact, till the LDP lost power in 2009, for the first time since 1955 except for a break for 9 months in 1993-94, Japan has been ruled by the LDP and everything about Japan’s politics was predictable. The leaders of the factions of which there were a few, sat behind the scene and ironed out everything, from policies to political leaders of the party and even the Prime Minister, and the parliamentarians and LDP leaders outside the parliament were required only to rubber stamp their decisions.
In 2009, the LDP was crushed by the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) that had entered Japan’s politics only in 1998. There were a lot of expectations that the DPJ’s victory would break for good LDP’s stranglehold on the politics of the country and establish a two-party system under which parliamentary systems work to the best limits of their potentials. That expectation took a heavy beating by the outcome of the 2012 elections. The LDP won 294 seats against 87 it won in 2009. Its ally the New Komeito won 35 in the 480 member lower house. The DJP had won 304 seats in 2009. It won only 57 seats this time. In fact a new party floated by the popular Mayor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara just three seats less, 54.
On paper, the outcome could be interpreted as a “landslide” for the LDP. On analysis though, the victory is hardly spectacular. In the first place, only 59% voters turned out to vote, the second lowest voter turnout since the Second World War. That hinted strongly at voters’ apathy towards politics and political change. The LDP won 43% of the votes in the constituencies and only 28% of votes in the proportional seats. Based on these figures, an analyst concluded that LDP could “claim support of 30% of the Japanese people.” In fact, leading up to the elections, the voter apathy was such that everyone expected the 2012 elections to be the most lack luster one in recent Japanese history. Governor Ishihara floated a new party and cash on that apathy!
In the end, for those who voted, the choice was a negative one. In 3 years since they rejected the LDP hoping for better times, the country has slipped in economic ways as with its foreign policy issues. Japan is going through its third economic recession since 2000. The DPJ’s flip flop ways left the voters’ frustrated. In foreign affairs, the DPJ with its left of centre policies had promised to bring Japan closer to Asia and lessen its dependence on the United States. It failed in a major way on both the choices. It did not succeed in affecting the Japan-USA defense cooperation in a major way to satisfy the resurgent nationalism in Japan that does not see Japan’s over dependence on USA positively. Likewise its handling over the Senkaku-Diaoyu row with China also frustrated many Japanese. Added to these failures, the DPJ was unlucky with nature. The Tsunami in March, 2011 that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster also added to the people’s frustration with the DPG government. Frustration on economic and foreign affairs fronts was so deep that the people failed to give the DPJ credit for managing the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
The LDP under Shinzo Abe’s leadership capitalized on these DJP failures and people’s frustration, particularly on economic recession and the conflict with China. On economic recovery, the LDP has placed before the people what is known in Japan as “Abenomics” that proposes heavy spending in public and construction projects that critics term as “print and spend” policy; a short term option that would create more long term dangers . On China, Shinzo Abe has taken a deeply nationalistic stance for which he is well known. The first overseas visit of the DJP Prime Minister after the party won power in 2009 was to China. Shinzo Abe has already announced that his first overseas visit will be to Washington, no doubt intended to send a message to China that the LDP government would focus heavily on the Japan-USA Defense Treaty. Shinzo Abe’s return has been warmly welcomed by President Barak Obama.
On foreign affairs, Shinzo Abe has also stated that Japan’s other focus would be on India. The hint is clear. Japan that already has a strategic partnership with India will now become part of the USA-India strategic partnership, intended to deal with China’s expansion in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In fact, under Shinzo Abe the two strategic partnerships could merge into one USA-Japan-India strategic partnership, if not formally, at least in the context of practical diplomacy. While stating that Japan would post regular government officials to the Senkaku islands as a message to China, Shinzo Abe has nevertheless assured that the Government under him would strive for betterment of relations with China. The other question that had loomed large over the 2012 elections was the issue of nuclear energy. Following Fukushima disaster, there is intense debate in Japan about phasing Japan’s 30% dependence of nuclear energy . On this issue, Shinzo Abe has stated clearly that his government will continue to depend on nuclear energy but adhere more stringently by higher safety standards as determined by the IAEA.
The LDP government of Shinzo Abe will be a right of centre one as opposed to the left of centre stance of the outgoing DPJ. This notwithstanding, the LDP’s return and that of Shinzo Abe will not inspire the average Japanese to expect dramatic changes in governance. Shinzo Abe in his first term had raised great expectations. His return has not aroused any such enthusiasm. It is a return that has been more the result of the failures of the DJP on a wide range of governance issues. One aspect to look into would be how the DPJ reorganizes itself after such a massive defeat and whether it would be able to carry on and provide Japan a viable two-party parliamentary system. This notwithstanding, the LDP/New Komeito’s 2/3 majority in the lower house will allow it to rule firmly provided Shinzo Abe is able to control the factions in his own party effectively.
For Bangladesh, LDP is always a better alternative as the party has provided Bangladesh great support in building a war ravaged country after its war of liberation that Japan has continued till to date. It is the LDP’s positive stance towards the birth of Bangladesh that has led to Japan being consistently the largest bilateral provider of ODA to Bangladesh; twice the amount it receives from the United States. That support would no doubt continue and be enhanced. The fact that former Prime Minister Taro Aso is the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in the Shinzo Abe government is a matter of great satisfaction for Bangladesh because he is also the President of Japan-Bangladesh Parliamentary Friendship League.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary