The Liberal Democratic Party surged to power in the Dec. 16 Lower House election, gaining enough strength to help it ram through its policies in the Diet while leaving the ruling party in tatters.
The LDP won 294 seats while its long-time ally New Komeito gained 31 for a combined 325 in the 480-seat Lower House. The expected governing coalition’s strength exceeds 320 seats, or two-thirds of the total, enabling it to override rejections of bills in the Upper House, where the coalition doesn't hold a majority.
Shinzo Abe, the LDP president who has promised to end deflation, increase monetary easing measures, and revise Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution, will likely be named the next prime minister in an extraordinary Diet session as early as on Dec. 26.
Stock prices rose in Tokyo on Dec. 17 on expectations that an LDP government will push measures to buoy the economy.
The Nikkei 225 index, the benchmark of the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s First Section issues, topped the 9,900 level for the first time in more than eight months. It closed at 9,828.88, up 91.32 from Dec. 14.
The yen weakened to 84.40 yen against the dollar in early morning trading overseas, a level last seen 20 months ago.
The election was a reversal of the Lower House election in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan knocked the LDP out of power after decades of nearly uninterrupted rule.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced his resignation as DPJ leader to take responsibility for the party’s humiliating loss of about 75 percent of its seats.
For Abe, the election result offers a chance to redeem himself for abruptly quitting as prime minister in September 2007 for health reasons. However, Abe did recognize that the election results may be more about the public’s punishment of the DPJ than a reward for the LDP.
"It's not that the voting public put 100 percent faith in the LDP, but what has happened was that the people wanted to end the political confusion created by the DPJ over the years,” Abe said on public broadcaster Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) late on Dec. 16. “We will try to come up with solutions in a solid fashion under the strict scrutiny of the people."
The DPJ held 230 seats before the election. After the ballots were counted, the party had only 57 seats.
The newly formed Japan Restoration Party, headed by former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, became the third largest party in the Lower House, gaining 54 seats in the election. Ishihara obtained a Diet seat for the first time in 17 years.
The anti-nuclear Tomorrow Party of Japan, led by Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada, failed to generate much support after it was formed just days before the election campaign started. Only nine of the 61 members of the party retained their seats in the Lower House.
The LDP held 118 seats before the election.
Voter turnout was a postwar record low of 59.32 percent, or about 10 percentage points below the figure for the 2009 Lower House election, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
Abe, who became LDP president in September, is expected to hold a meeting with New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi on Dec. 18 to confirm their intention to create a coalition government. After he is named prime minister, Abe will likely immediately form a Cabinet.
A second stint for Abe as prime minister would be the first for Japan since shortly after the end of World War II, when Shigeru Yoshida returned to the post.
Pre-election opinions polls showed that the LDP would win a majority in the election. The question was whether the LDP and New Komeito could secure more than two-thirds of the Lower House seats to override decisions made in the Upper House.
During the campaign, Abe repeatedly criticized the DPJ's foreign policy as a disaster. He said he plans to make an early visit to the United States to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama to confirm the importance of the alliance.
"On the basis of that, we will try to improve ties with China," Abe said on NHK. But he quickly added that he would not budge over Japan's ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China.
The election was the first since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami caused the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March last year.
During the debate over Japan’s energy policy, the Noda administration pledged to stop operations at all nuclear plants by the 2030s. The LDP, a long-time proponent of nuclear energy, has taken the position of allowing nuclear power generation for the time being.
The LDP’s plank only called for putting together the best mix of energy sources within the next 10 years. And the Abe administration is expected to approve the resumption of operations at nuclear reactors judged to be safe by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.
The new government will likely compile a supplementary budget by the end of the year and pass it at the start of the ordinary Diet session that will convene early next year.
To tackle deflation, long a strain on economic growth, Abe has called for cooperating with the Bank of Japan to set an inflation target rate of 2 percent and to take aggressive monetary easing measures. Abe’s proposals have led to speculation about who will succeed BOJ Governor Masaaki Shirakawa, who has voiced opposition to such steps, when his term ends in April.
Abe also plans to set up a headquarters in the Cabinet to handle the resuscitation of the Japanese economy.
Much has been reported about Abe’s hawkish stance on national security. Even the pacifist New Komeito, supported mainly by the Soka Gakkai lay-Buddhist organization, has expressed concerns about Abe’s stance.
For example, Abe said he intends to revise the Constitution to approve Japan’s exercise of the right of collective self-defense.
He will also begin considering the permanent basing of public servants on the Senkakus to strengthen effective control over the islands.
Abe's other policy positions, such as visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including Class-A war criminals, and reviewing Japan’s statement of apology and remorse for the "comfort women" issue, will also be a focus of attention because of their implications on the relationship with China.
The issue of “comfort women,” who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II, has also been a point of contention with South Korea.
There is a possibility of lawsuits being filed to invalidate the results of the Lower House election because it was held without correcting the imbalance in the value of a single vote between the most and least populous districts. The Supreme Court ruled that the disparity was unconstitutional.
While Abe plans his new government, the DPJ will have a tough time emerging from the hole it created.
Noda's resignation will require a new election to pick a leader to rebuild the DPJ. The party did not even come close to the 93 seats it won when it was first formed in 1998.
"We have to seriously accept the judgment of the public and make efforts to rebuild a new DPJ," Azuma Koshiishi, the DPJ secretary-general, said at a Dec. 16 news conference.
DPJ executives agreed Dec. 17 to hold a plenary meeting of members of the two chambers of the Diet and elect a new party leader on Dec. 22.
The selection of a new party leader will likely mean a review of the agreement between Noda and the LDP and New Komeito to double the consumption tax rate by 2015. That agreement led to mass defections from the DPJ, exacerbating the internal squabbling that had long plagued the party.
The major issue facing the new DPJ leader will be establishing a common front with other opposition parties in preparing for the Upper House election next summer.
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NUMBERS OF SEATS GAINED BY PARTIES
(Figures in parentheses are seats held before the election campaign officially started. There was one vacancy.)
LDP: 294 (118)
DPJ: 57 (230)
Japan Restoration Party: 54 (11)
New Komeito: 31 (21)
Your Party: 18 (8)
Tomorrow Party of Japan: 9 (61)
JCP: 8 (9)
SDP: 2 (5)
People's New Party: 1 (2)
New Party Daichi: 1 (3)
New Renaissance Party: 0 (0)
New Party Nippon: 0 (1)
Other groups: 0 (0)
Independent: 5 (10)
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