Japanese voters went to the polls three days after a Chinese government aircraft for the first time entered what Japan says is its airspace – above islands controlled by Japan and claimed by China – sparking Japanese protests and unsettling the U.S.
Abe has long been associated with a push to edge Japan away from the pacifism enshrined in its post-World War II constitution and towards a more assertive regional security role.
Five years after he abruptly resigned a post he had held for just 12 months, he is expected to be named prime minister during a special parliamentary session next week.
Abe announced plans late Sunday to form a coalition with the LDP’s traditional ally, New Komeito, which will give the incoming government two-thirds of the seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament – a majority big enough to ease passage of legislation by overriding any upper house opposition.
The LDP increased its seat count from 118 to 294 – a stunning reversal of its ignominious defeat in 2009, when the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ended almost a half-century of virtually uninterrupted LDP rule.
This time it was the DPJ that saw its fortunes plummet, winning just 57 seats, down from 230. Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda resigned from his post as DPJ president late Sunday in acknowledgement of the defeat.
Also of significant interest for Japan-watchers was the strong showing of the new right-wing Japan Restoration Party (JRP), which has become the third-largest, with just three seats fewer than the DPJ.
The JRP’s success is a further reflection of the mood in Japan, and it is push for more nationalistic policies, particularly on issues like the territorial spat with Beijing.
On Thursday, a Chinese plane entered the airspace over uninhabited islands at the center of the bilateral dispute – called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China – increasing regional tensions and troubling the U.S.
“We’ve raised our concerns with the Chinese government directly and made clear that U.S. policy and commitments regarding the Senkaku islands are longstanding and have not changed,” State Department spokeswoman Patrick Ventrell confirmed Friday.
The U.S. says the islands fall within the scope of article five of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
Simmering regional tensions
Located about halfway between the Chinese mainland and Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa, the islands have been under Japanese control since the late 19th century, but the long-simmering dispute erupted again this year.
Chinese and Japanese ships have come within close proximity of each other in the area, raising fears that an incident, intentional or otherwise, could spark a conflict. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned the issue could trigger war between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.
Abe, who has spoken of plans to station Japanese civil servants on the Senkakus, told the Japanese public broadcaster NHK late Sunday that he would not give way on the issue of ownership of the islands, although he also pledged to seek better ties with China.
He also spoke about the need to improve relations with Washington after what he characterized during the campaign as a poorly-managed foreign policy under the DPJ.
President Obama in a statement congratulated Abe on the election victory. “The U.S.-Japan alliance serves as the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and I look forward to working closely with the next government and the people of Japan on a range of important bilateral, regional and global issues,” it said.
Since 2005 the LDP has mulled amending Japan’s constitution to remove the pacifist elements. The issue has unnerved some in the region, given Japan’s history of aggression and atrocities in the first half of last century.
The constitution’s article nine renounces the use of force to settle international disputes, but opinion polls show considerable public opposition to its revision. Any amendment would require supermajorities in both houses of parliament.
With the LDP’s return to power, and regional tensions over the territorial dispute as well as North Korea’s recent missile test, the issue of revising the constitution could return to the agenda.
Still, despite the interest in security and geopolitics, the success or otherwise of Abe’s tenure will most likely depend on his ability to stimulate the economy.
A survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that 61 percent of voters put the economy at the forefront of their concerns, while just 15 percent picked “diplomacy and national security issues.”
Abe will be Japan’s seventh prime minister in a little more than six years.
Japan will hold elections for the upper house of parliament next July, and if the recent past is a guide voters could well punish the LDP if they are unhappy with progress by then. Abe knows this well: His sudden resignation in 2007 came just two months after the LDP suffered a severe defeat in upper house elections.
Currently the DPJ is the biggest party in the 242-seat upper house. Members serve for six year terms, and half of the total seats come up for election next summer.