What will Abe do?


Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe locked up Japan’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, meaning the real test of his leadership is about to start.

In the seven months since taking over as Japan’s leader, Abe has focused on promoting a set of reforms—so called “Abenomics”—aimed at rousing the country from its deepening economic slumber. Yet until Sunday, his Liberal Democratic Party lacked control of the upper house of parliament and, as a result, the ability to swiftly pass and implement Abe’s full agenda.

However now that Abe has control of both houses, and something of carte blanche to stir a sleepy Japan, will he do so effectively?

“In Japan, there’s a very big opposition party," says Yoichi Takita, a writer at the Nohon Keizai Shimbun. "It’s not the DPJ (the Democratic Party of Japan), it’s the stock market itself.”

Abe’s economic plan combines monetary easing like we’re seeing in the United States, an active fiscal policy in the spirit of John Maynard Keynes, and a growth strategy involving the private sector. While he has already set in motion certain policies, he appeared to be waiting until after the election to talk about some harder, less popular initiatives like budget cuts.

We can attribute part of Abe's decision to wait to the difficulty of getting legislation through a heretofore "twisted parliament," one that was gridlocked because the opposition controlled the upper house. Yet Abe's hanging back also seemed to stem from his own personal need for affirmation of his leadership before plunging forward. He already held the role of prime minister once before and resigned after his party lost an upper house election in 2007. What ensued was not just public humiliation for Abe, but a cycle of parliamentary gridlock and one failed prime minister after another for more than five years. This weekend's upper house win, in a sense, finally provides both a legislative green light and a symbolic one.

Despite Abe's caution in these regards, he is placing big bets with his economic plan. Even his decision to run for prime minister again showed an openness to risk and a learn-from-failure mentality that some describe as historically atypical, but now crucial, for Japanese society to embrace. Ross Rowbury, president of public relations firm Edelman Japan, sees this as "a major indication that the national psyche in Japan is beginning to change," as the country recognizes that only big, visionary solutions will help solve problems like depopulation and the devaluation of the yen.

“Where he’s failed is expectations management,” Rowbury says. “We have heard nothing but good news, nothing but predictions of what’s going to happen with Abenomics. And of course the higher the expectations go, the more disappointment."

Another question is whether, with such largely unchecked authority, Abe will choose to push through other unrelated and more controversial, nationalist items than his economic reforms — such as constitutional changes regarding Japan's self defense, or patriotic education programs. This post-election period should reveal how committed he is to keeping the economy his focus, and, even if so, whether he can successfully lead the type of major revival he has been promising.

“Everyone knows what the question is,” Rowbury says. “Not everyone yet has caught on what the answer is.”

 Read also:

Japan's ruling bloc cruises to victory

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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