Shinzo Abe

Shinzo Abe must resist rightwards drift

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 1:39am

Japan has its strongest government for years after the decisive win by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition in Sunday's elections for the upper house of parliament. Now that the coalition controls both legislative chambers, the bottleneck preventing reform has been unblocked. The right-wing leader pledged in his victory speech that his priority would be the economy, but there will be a temptation to push a nationalist agenda that has caused friction with China and South Korea. He has to resist pressure from conservative politicians and focus on mending ties with neighbours.

No Japanese leader has had such a strong mandate to rule for two decades. A markedly improved economy since Abe was returned to power in December and the promise of better times propelled his Liberal Democratic party and its New Komeito partner to victory in the polls for half of the 242 seats in the upper house. But despite the parties now having 135 of the seats, they still lack the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional changes. Nor does his agenda have solid backing. Just 52.6 per cent of voters bothered casting ballots.

Still, the win shows clear support for "Abenomics", Abe's programme of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms that in their initial stages, seem to be banishing 20 years of economic stagnation. Getting control of both houses was a critical part of furthering his plan, although the intended reforms are so far-reaching that there is likely to be resistance in his party, the business community and society in general. But his vision of a revived Japan is not just about the economy. He also wants it reasserting itself as a leader among Asian nations. To attain that, the pacifist constitution, imposed by the US after imperial Japan's war-time defeat, would have to be revised so that the Self-Defence Force could become a regular military. He has not ruled out going to the Yasukuni shrine to the nation's war dead on August 15, the anniversary of the surrender.

Abe indicated in March a desire to hold talks with President Xi Jinping . The territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands has continued to simmer, though, and campaign rhetoric to attract voters has heightened tensions. Abe has an economic plan but it cannot be successfully furthered if his country, with the world's third-biggest economy, is at odds with China, the second-biggest. Nor is that good for the stability of Asia and the Pacific and global economic growth. Both leaders need to work together to ensure peace, growth and prosperity. Abe's resisting nationalist urges is a crucial part.