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Up Front

Shinzo Abe’s Surprising Victory 

Mireya Solís

The election of Shinzo Abe as president of the Liberal Democratic Party caught many by surprise – in an informal poll of seasoned Japan-watchers in fact no one picked Abe as the likely winner in this intra-party contest. That the outcome was unusual can be readily appreciated by the fact that the selection of the LDP’s president had not been decided in a runoff election in over 40 years, and that it had been close to 56 years since there had been an upset between the first and second place candidates in the two rounds of voting (coincidentally Abe’s grandfather Nobosuke Kishi lost that run-off election in 1956). The victory of Abe is even more surprising if one takes into account that his competitors had strong bases of support: Mr. Nobuteru Ishihara from the party elders and Mr. Shigeru Ishiba from the party’s base in the prefectural branches. Moreover, since Mr. Abe resigned abruptly as Prime Minister in September 2007 after just one year in office, few thought he would be given a second chance to head the LDP and aspire again to the top political office in the country.

In the weeks to come, we will be scratching our heads trying to figure out this unlikely outcome. Some possible explanations are already circulating: the divisions and increasing weakness of the party factions in deciding party presidential elections, the perception that the Japanese population is so disenchanted with the DPJ, that the party can still win the election without choosing its most popular candidate, and of course the appeal of the “deliverables” Mr. Abe has put on the table: securing an early general election, reaching out to popular Osaka Mayor Tōru Hashimoto’s party (the Japan Restoration Association) to set up the basis of a future coalition government, and standing firm with China.

Mr. Abe has a history of surprising us, not only with his recent political comeback to the helm of the LDP but also during his tenure as Prime Minister when, despite his hawkish profile in foreign policy, he chose China for his first trip overseas in an attempt to mend-fences, as he noted in his speech at Brookings in April 2009. Now that Mr. Abe is the head of the largest opposition party and a potential Prime Minister of Japan, he could prove his reputation for doing the unexpected by initiatives like the following:

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