News Analysis

Shinzo Abe goes from loser to winner in three months

TOKYO - What a difference three months can make in Japanese politics.

In July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, then embroiled in two cronynism scandals, was heckled when he stumped for a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate in Akihabara district on the eve of the Tokyo assembly election.

Three months later, he emerged triumphant after his gamble to call a snap election on Sunday (Oct 22) paid off handsomely.

The LDP-led coalition is on track to secure a two-thirds "super majority" in the powerful Lower House of parliament.

It is the third time Mr Abe has led his party to an electoral victory since he returned to a second stint as prime minister in late 2012.

A renewed mandate for Mr Abe and the LDP means that Japan's course in economic and foreign policy, as charted by the 63-year-old Mr Abe, will continue unabated.

Since he came to power in December 2012, the world's third largest economy has steadily regained its global prominence.

The economy is likely to register its seventh straight quarter of growth in the three months ending September, while the Nikkei 225 index had, as of last Frida, marked 14 straight days of gains in the longest winning streak since 1961.

While wage growth remains anemic, economists expect it to pick up as the labour market is at its tightest in over 40 years. All this is a fillip for Mr Abe's trademark "Abenomics" economic policy.

In foreign policy, Mr Abe's win will be regarded as a mandate for its position to tighten the noose on North Korea, in lockstep with United States President Donald Trump, who will visit Tokyo in two weeks.

Strong diplomacy is required to do that, the Japanese leader said last night.

Analysts say Tokyo is likely to lean more towards Washington rather than Beijing in tackling the belligerent North Korea, which test-fired two missiles over Japan in a month.

With the LDP scheduled to hold a party election next year, executive director Sota Kato of think-tank Tokyo Foundation said: "I think it is difficult for other LDP leaders to argue against the electoral legitimacy of Mr Abe at this point, (although) lots of things may happen before the poll."

Dr Kato, as well as University of Tokyo political scientist Yu Uchiyama, pointed to Mr Abe's lacklustre public support as a factor that could work against him.

The LDP's huge victory on Sunday was due in part to a split in the opposition vote.

Dr Uchiyama said: "I don't think the voters positively chose Mr Abe, but it is a kind of negative choice in that he was chosen because there were no other viable options."

Political analyst Tobias Harris said at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan: "In most of the single-member constituencies, you have multiple opposition candidates running against one LDP candidate."

This is one of the reasons any LDP win could be called "victory by default", he added.

One result showed the kind of uphill climb that Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and her Kibo no To have to establish a foothold in national politics.

Her close aide, two-term incumbent Masaru Wakasa, 60, not only was defeated by the LDP's Hayato Suzuki, 40, in his Tokyo ward, but also lost to another new face, Mr Yosuke Suzuki, 41, from Japan's newest political party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).

Early results show that the CDP is likely to emerge as the main opposition party.

The Kibo no To, cut from the same ideological cloth as the LDP, is likely to come after the CDP.

Ms Koike apologised on Sunday for perceived missteps over her campaign, including a remark to "purge" left-leaning lawmakers who do not subscribe to her party's ideology.

Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano said: "Ms Koike was always a phenomenon and so the moment her image was tarnished, and the media started portraying her not as a Joan of Arc but a rather mean woman, the hype was deflated quite quickly."

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