Japan’s conservative former ruling party made a dramatic comeback in elections Sunday, riding a wave of anxiety about rising China and economic stagnation.
The resounding victory of the Liberal Democratic Party will put Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister, back in power, where he is likely to pursue a tougher stance toward China and prevent the nation from abandoning nuclear energy, despite last year’s disaster at Fukshima.
Exit polls by major Japanese broadcasters gave the Liberal Democratic Party 296 seats in Japan’s 480-seat lower house, while its ally, the New Komeito Party, was projected to win 32. That would give them the two-thirds majority needed to overrule the upper house, perhaps breaking the deadlocks that have long stymied Japanese governments.
The Liberal Democrats held a near-monopoly on power in Japan from 1955 to 2009, when they were booted out by the Democratic Party of Japan, now headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. But voters were disappointed with their handling of the economy and last year’s tsunami, and are expected to hand them only about 70 seats.
"I think the Japanese public just feels stuck. The economy has not improved. China has surpassed them and problems with a low birthrate and dwindling population are yet to be resolved," said Tetsuro Kato, a political scientist at Waseda University. "The public wants stronger leadership and they haven't seen enough of it under the current government."
Also expected to make gains are a crop of new small parties, pushing a nationalist agenda. The strongest of them is the Japan Restoration Party headed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and controversial former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. It was Ishihara who set in motion the current standoff with China with an ill-advised plan to buy and nationalize a contested island chain called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.
Abe, 58, also supports loosening Japan’s pacifist post-World War II constitution to allow a more active role for the military. Born to an illustrious political family, Abe was Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister, but he resigned just a year later because of health problems and a string of scandals.
Since then, there has been a revolving door of prime ministers. Noda, who took office in September 2011, is the longest-serving prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi, Abe's predecessor, left office in 2006.