December 16, 2012

Conservatives return to power with landslide in Japan

Signaling a shift that could further heighten tensions with China, ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will get a second chance to lead the country.

By MALCOLM FOSTER/The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Japan's main opposition leader Shinzo Abe, right, of the Liberal Democratic Party, and the party secretary-general, Shigeru Ishiba, place a rosette on the name of one of those elected in parliamentary elections at the party headquarters in Tokyo on Sunday. The conservative LDP stormed back to power Sunday after three years in opposition, exit polls showed.

The Associated Press

The new government will need to quickly deliver results ahead of upper house elections in the summer. To revive Japan's struggling economy, Abe will likely push for increased public works spending and lobby for stronger moves by the central bank to break Japan out of its deflationary trap.

"The economy has been in dire straits these past three years, and it must be the top priority," Abe said in a televised interview. He has repeatedly said in the past he will protect Japan's "territory and beautiful seas" amid a territorial dispute with China over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Daioyu.

"We must strengthen our alliance with the U.S. and also improve relations with China, with a strong determination that is no change in the fact the Senkaku islands are our territory," Abe said in the interview.

Some voters also said they supported the LDP's vows to build a stronger, more assertive country to answer increasing pressure from China and threats of North Korean rocket launches.

"I feel like the LDP will protect Japan and restore some national pride," Momoko Mihara, 31, said after voting in the western Tokyo suburb of Fuchu. "I hope Mr. Abe will stand tall."

More than 12 parties, including several new ones, contested, some with vague policy goals.

One of the new parties, the right-leaning, populist Japan Restoration Party, won 54 seats, NHK projected. The party, led by the bombastic nationalist ex-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and lawyer-turned Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto – both of whom are polarizing figures with forceful leadership styles – could become a future coalition partner for the LDP, analysts said.

Ishihara was the one who stirred up the latest dispute with China over the islands when he proposed that the Tokyo government buy them from their private Japanese owners and develop them.

The anti-nuclear Tomorrow Party – formed just three weeks ago – captured just eight seats, according to NHK tally. Party head Yukiko Kada said she was very disappointed to see LDP, the original promoter of Japan's nuclear energy policy making a big comeback.

Abe, 58, is considered one of the more conservative figures in the increasingly conservative LDP.

During his previous tenure as prime minister, he pursued a nationalistic agenda pressing for more patriotic education and upgrading the defense agency to ministry status.

It remains to be seen how he will behave this time around, though he is talking tough toward China, and the LDP platform calls developing fisheries and setting up a permanent outpost in the Senkaku/Daioyu islands,  a move that would infuriate Beijing.

During his time as leader, Abe also insisted there was no proof Japan's military had coerced Chinese, Korean and other women into prostitution in military brothels during Japan's wartime aggression in Asia. He later apologized but lately has suggested that a landmark 1993 apology by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary for sex slavery needs revising.

He has said he regrets not visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan's war dead, including top war criminals, during his term as prime minister. China and South Korea oppose such visits, saying they reflect Japan's reluctance to fully atone for its wartime atrocities.

The LDP wants to revise Japan's pacifist constitution to strengthen its Self-Defense Forces and, breaching a postwar taboo, designate them as a "military." It also proposes increasing Japan's defense budget and allowing Japanese troops to engage in "collective self-defense" operations with allies that are not directly related to Japan's own defense.

It's not clear, however, how strongly the LDP will push such proposals, which have been kicked around by conservatives for decades but made no headway in parliament because of limited support among a group of right-wing advocates. LDP could push them harder this time as it and coalition partner now controlling two-thirds in the lower house, though they lack control of the other chamber.

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