Former prime minister Shinzō Abe was elected the new leader of Japan’s main opposition Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday. Abe is now poised to become the next premier in elections widely expected to be called in the next few months.
Abe, who defeated his rival and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba as party leader in a runoff, served in 2006 as Japan’s prime minister for a year before resigning for personal reasons.
Abe’s reputation as a nationalist could raise apprehension in the region. Specifically, Japan’s tense relations with China and South Korea over its competing claims to the the Senkaku and Takeshima Islands respectively could worsen.
During the campaign, Abe was the most hawkish of the candidates and pledged to protect Japanese territory under threat in these disputes “no matter what.” As prime minister, he caused various uproars when he indicated a desire to change Japan’s pacifist constitution, in place since the end of the Second World War; when he questioned the audacity of the widely reported use of Asian women as sex slaves during the Japanese occupation in Asia and when he tried to alter Japanese textbooks that many felt failed to give a true account of wartime atrocities committed by the military.
Abe’s election comes less than a week after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda retained the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan in a landslide. Following his reelection to a new three term as party leader, it was reported that Noda intends to reshuffle his cabinet ahead of talks with opposition parties over reforms to the social security and tax systems, as well as the consumption tax, according to Daily Yomiuri Online. Noda has in effect gambled the party’s control of the government over implementation of economic reforms in order to spur Japan’s economy.
Noda has been suffering in the polls after passing a sales tax increase this summer and amid lingering uncertainty over Japan’s reliance on nuclear power after last year’s disaster at Fukushima. A tepid economic recovery and increased tensions with China have also caused the public to look for an alternative to Noda as leader.
The stage is now set for elections expected to be called sometime by the end of this year. Noda has tacked to the right in recent months by taking stronger positions over the island disputes in a bid to shore up support from a Japanese public that is growing more alarmed over national security.
Widespread concern over the economy had also weakened support for Noda and the Democratic Party. All this puts Abe in a favorable position to reclaim the role as Japan’s prime minister in the near future.