After leading his conservative party to a landslide victory, Shinzo Abe stressed today that the road ahead will not be easy as he tries to revive Japan’s sputtering economy and bolster its national security.
The Liberal Democratic Party – which led Japan for most of the post-Second World War era until it was dumped as the economy fizzled in 2009 – won 294 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament in yesterday’s nationwide elections, according to media reports.
With the elections over, a vote among members of parliament to install a new prime minister is expected as soon as December 25.
Mr Abe, who was prime minister in 2006-07, is almost certain of winning that vote because the LDP holds the majority in the lower house.
“We won more seats than even we expected,” Mr Abe, 58, said. “We have a very heavy responsibility.”
Outgoing premier Yoshihiko Noda announced his resignation late last night, calling the election results “severe” and acknowledging his party failed to live up to the nation’s high expectations.
His Democratic Party of Japan reportedly won only 57 seats. Among its casualties were eight cabinet ministers – the most lost in an election since the war.
Economic issues, including plans to raise taxes and other measures to bolster Japan’s underperforming economy, were the top concerns among voters.
Mr Abe, who would be Japan’s seventh prime minister in six years, is likely to push for increased public works spending and lobby for stronger moves by the central bank to break Japan out of its deflationary trap.
Stock prices soared to their highest level in more than eight months after the polls, reflecting hopes in the business world that the LDP will be more effective in its economic policies than the Democrats were.
Although the election was the first since the March last year, earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster ended up being a side issue, though polls showed that about 80% of Japanese want to phase out atomic energy completely.
Instead, Mr Abe and his party stressed national security amid a continuing dispute with China over a group of small uninhabited islands that both nations claim.
That kind of tough talk resonates with some voters who fear their country is falling too far behind China’s rising economic and military clout, but it could also deepen a rift between Tokyo and Beijing that has already begun to sour diplomatic ties and trade.
Mr Abe is known as a hawk on China relations, which could mean more friction with Japan’s giant neighbour and key trading partner.
During his previous tenure as prime minister, Mr Abe pursued a nationalistic agenda, pressing for more patriotic education and upgrading the defence agency to ministry status.
The LDP wants to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to strengthen its Self-Defence Forces and, breaching a post-war taboo, designate them as a “military”.
It also proposes increasing Japan’s defence budget and allowing Japanese troops to engage in “collective self-defence” operations with allies that are not directly related to Japan’s own defence.