TOKYO — Japan’s voters on Sunday returned power to the Liberal Democratic Party, the colossus that until 2009 ran post-World War II Japan nearly without interruption and that now reinherits the major economic problems that no leader in Tokyo has been able to fix.
Based on projections after the polls closed, the parliamentary election delivered an emphatic change. Public broadcaster NHK said the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) grabbed 294 spots in the 480-seat lower house, up from the 118 it had before. The ousted Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won only 57, down from 230, a fierce rebuke of a party that guided the country into another recession and into a bitter territorial dispute with China.
The election also reinstates a familiar face, with nationalist Shinzo Abe — party president of the LDP — becoming prime minister for the second time, after a turbulent 366-day stint in 2006 and 2007. Abe replaces Yoshihiko Noda, marking Japan’s 14th leadership change in two decades. The turnover rate reflects the many protracted political battles, and few easy policymaking solutions, in an aging nation with a shrinking workforce and the industrialized world’s highest debt burden.
The LDP will be able to overcome some of that gridlock because its coalition partner, New Komeito, won 31 seats. That gives the coalition a 320-
seat veto-proof “supermajority,” meaning its lawmakers can pass bills even without the support of the DPJ-led upper house.
Late Sunday, as it became clear that his party had taken a drubbing, Noda stepped down as head of the DPJ to take responsibility for the “tough” result.
When it last ruled, the LDP was a centrist party, famous for support from rural areas and pork-barrel spending on construction projects. But Abe has helped steer his party farther to the right, vowing on the campaign trail to “take back Japan.” Political analysts say his second premiership will reveal how his priorities to boost military spending and revise the pacifist constitution jibe with those of the public.
Abe has also said that he wants to place government officials on the uninhabited islands claimed by China — a move that would infuriate Beijing and potentially force a treaty-bound Washington to take sides with Tokyo in a small-scale armed conflict.
Abe said Sunday night that he wanted to visit Washington in his first overseas trip to boost bilateral ties.
Although the LDP’s victory Sunday suggests a landslide, the party has far from a mandate, with a support rate in the 20s. In one voting district after the next, its representatives won races without gaining a majority, benefiting from a fractured field contested among at least 12 political parties. Abe, according to polls, is not much more popular than he was when he resigned in 2007 because of a bowel illness.
The landslide result does “not mean [the LDP] has won the people’s overwhelming support,” independent political analyst Eiken Itagaki said. “With this in mind, the LDP executives are being careful not to get arrogant.”
Pundits say that Abe, if he wants to strengthen public support, will place his controversial military goals on the back burner and focus on the economy, an area in which his policies align far more with the priorities of the public. In recent campaign speeches, Abe spent more than half of his time talking about the economy, which has stagnated since the collapse of a real estate and stock market bubble more than 20 years ago.
The economic cure prescribed by Abe differs sharply from that of Noda, a fiscal hawk who preached austerity and won the begrudging parliamentary approval of a sales tax hike. Abe, instead, has drawn up a bold spending plan — welcomed by the markets — to return Japan to inflation, and he emphasized Sunday night that this would be his top priority in office.
Abe wants Japan’s central bank to be far more aggressive in its money printing, saying the country should target an inflation rate of 2 percent rather than the current 1 percent, driven if necessary by “unlimited” easing. Abe has even threatened to curtail the Bank of Japan’s independence by ordering it to buy government bonds.
To go with the monetary easing, Abe plans to spend — mostly on construction. The LDP plans to spend about $2.38 trillion over 10 years — averaging 40 percent of Japan’s annual gross domestic product — on public works projects that will help Japan withstand earthquakes and tsunamis.
The danger with the plan, according to critics, is that the spending will further ratchet up Japan’s debt load while spurring runaway inflation that doesn’t just rise but soars out of control. That would risk a scenario in which investors lose confidence in Japan’s ability to repay its debts.
The emphasis on economic health comes with another prong: the maintenance of atomic power as an energy source, despite widespread anti-nuclear sentiment in the wake of last year’s triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Previously, the DPJ had given a vague promise to “engage in debate” about phasing out nuclear power before 2040. The LDP, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency, is likely to retract that goal.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.