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:
- A decision not to use legislative gridlock as a tool to pressure the DPJ to call an early election. Important bills – like the one on deficit financing bonds – will require legislative action soon, and the scenario of the country facing policy-making paralysis as the parties squabble over the timing of the election should be avoided.
- A reconsideration of critical issues in the national agenda, such as Japan’s participation in the TPP. Hopefully, Mr. Abe will reconsider his present opposition to this trade agreement -not just in an attempt to achieve collaboration with the pro-TPP Mr. Hashimoto – but also based on an in-depth consideration of the benefits for Japan of TPP membership, as he himself highlighted in a 2005 speech at Brookings the positive effects of trade agreements.
- A move away from party rhetoric that hints at greater control (including inhabitation) of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and from controversial statements on the issue of comfort women which are sure to irk China and South Korea. A pragmatic, level-headed diplomacy in East Asia that seeks to deflate -and not inflame- nationalism in the region is sorely needed.