A Familiar Party Returns to Rule Japan, Promising a Fresh Start. Don’t Hold Your Breath

With a decisive win in the Dec. 16 general elections, the conservative LDP has returned to power

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Issei Kato / REUTERS

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda leaves a news conference at his party's election headquarters in Tokyo on Dec. 16, 2012

They’re back. For nearly the entire post–World War II era, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has ruled Japan, its blend of export-led economics and lavish public-works spending spawning both the nation’s economic boom and then protracted financial contraction. Now, after a three-year interlude in which the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) betrayed its mandate to breathe fresh air into the country’s stale politics, the conservative LDP has returned to power, with a decisive win in the Dec. 16 general elections.

The LDP captured 294 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, with its minority partner, the Buddhist-influenced New Komeito Party, picking up another 31 seats. (Prior to the election, the LDP held only 118 seats.) The LDP’s hawkish party leader Shinzo Abe, who served for one year as Prime Minister before resigning because of gastrointestinal troubles in 2007, will almost assuredly return to the same post. He will be Japan’s seventh Prime Minister in less than seven years.

(MORE: Japan’s Wave of Patriotism)

Sunday’s election was the first since the devastating March 11, 2011, tsunami, earthquake and ensuing nuclear crisis. In the weeks and months after the triple disaster, some Japanese predicted that 3/11 would spur the DPJ to battle the vested interests and bureaucratic gridlock that have paralyzed the Japanese political and economic systems. But such hopes soon fizzled. Japan’s voters duly punished the ruling party, which suffered its worst showing since its founding in 1998. The DPJ’s lower-house representation dropped from 230 seats to just 57. Even Abe conceded on Sunday that the LDP’s landslide was due less to an affection for his party and more to a protest vote against the DPJ. Less than 60% of Japanese voters bothered to cast ballots, a further sign of their political disenchantment.

Earlier this month, Japan entered its fourth recession since 2000, and it was clear that economic considerations motivated those Japanese who voted to abandon the DPJ. But it is the LDP’s foreign policy platform that may have the biggest global impact. The grandson of a politician once accused of war crimes, the 58-year-old Abe has fashioned himself into even more of a nationalist since his previous stint in power, and he made standing up to China one of his campaign mantras. China may be Japan’s largest trading partner, but it also plays the role of economic usurper, having eclipsed Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010.

During the campaign, Abe took a hard-line geopolitical stance, promising to protect “our beautiful seas” from China. In recent months, a territorial dispute between the two Asian powers has metastasized over a sprinkling of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Ever since the Japanese government decided in September to nationalize the islands, which it controls, Beijing has stepped up maritime incursions into waters surrounding what it calls the Diaoyu Islands. (The Japanese refer to them as the Senkaku.) Last week, Tokyo reported that a Chinese surveillance plane had for the first time buzzed into Japanese-controlled airspace over the islands, which are located in waters (and near seabeds) rich with natural resources. Among the LDP’s campaign promises was to build a permanent facility on the islands, which will further inflame tensions between China and Japan.

(MORE: Why Japan Is Still Not Sorry Enough)

Coming in third in Sunday’s polls was the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), a newly formed political bloc with a sharply nationalist message. The JRP won 54 seats, a remarkable result for a party that was only formed this fall after Osaka’s charismatic young mayor Toru Hashimoto joined forces with Tokyo’s ultranationalist former governor Shintaro Ishihara. (The elderly Ishihara was the one who catalyzed the latest islands dispute when he announced in the spring that the Tokyo government would buy the contested territory from its private Japanese owners.) Indeed, the JRP’s electoral performance, buttressed by the LDP’s commanding showing, could portend an end to the reflexive pacificism that has characterized Japan’s postwar politics. The two parties could well form a partnership in the new government.

It’s likely that Abe will dial down his anti-China language now that he’s set to actually govern. On Sunday, the LDP leader vowed to avoid a “worsening of relations” between the two countries. The same easing in anti-China rhetoric happened during Abe’s previous stint as Prime Minister. But Japan may also be more receptive to tougher foreign policy during Abe’s second time in office. Certainly in Beijing, China’s new leadership is staking a more aggressively nationalist stance. Shortly before the Chinese airplane swooped into airspace that Japan calls its own, Chinese warships chugged into waters near the disputed islands. On Dec. 14, the Global Times, a Beijing-based newspaper with links to the Chinese Communist Party, declared:

“Japan needs to be clear that China will not retreat in the face of its provocations. The Chinese public will not allow such a retreat. A new reality has been formed surrounding the Diaoyu conflict. It is impossible to turn back. Japan has to accept it with rationality.”

What will Prime Minister Abe, now fortified by new medication for his stomach ailment, do this time around?

MORE: A Nervous Japan Swings Right Ahead of Dec. 16 Polls. But Don’t Expect Real Change