Diaoyu Islands

Japanese voters could turn to right over China islands dispute

While economy is the main issue, dispute with China may push Japanese electorate to right

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 3:12am

Minivans plastered with slogans and the smiling faces of candidates are cruising the streets of towns and cities across Japan while the leaders of the largest parties are appealing to the electorate in the key districts through loudspeakers.

Once again, Japan is counting down to polling day and, once again, it seems inevitable that a nation that has famously got through five prime ministers since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in September 2006 will eject its current leader.

When the results start coming in on Sunday evening, it is likely they will signal the end of Yoshihiko Noda's reign, which has lasted a little over 15 months.

Opinion polls suggest Noda is on course for a drubbing at the hands of the electorate and his Democratic Party of Japan could lose more than half of the 230 seats it holds in the 480-seat House of Representatives.

The opposition Liberal Dem-ocratic Party of Japan is likely to pick up most of those seats and hold either a simple majority or at least control the house through its long-standing alliance with the New Komeito Party.

That would see the return to power of Shinzo Abe, who lasted exactly 365 days when he was last prime minister, from September 2006. He stepped down due to illness and there must be questions over whether he can hold the position for longer this time.

Abe clearly believes he does and seems sufficiently confident of the outcome that he has already announced plans to visit Washington in January to meet US President Barack Obama.

And while the president will not be able to help a great deal with one of the two issues that are critical to this election - the state of the Japanese economy and how to inject some new life into it - the other area of shared concern is China and its growing assertiveness in the western Pacific.

The LDP believes Japan needs a close defence relationship with the US and that the two nations need to combine their strengths to resist China's advances.

"On the home front, the economy is the biggest worry for voters, but ... then China is the big issue," said Go Ito, a professor of politics at Tokyo's Meiji University. "I'm still not sure why China reacted in such an angry way to Japan's position on the Senkaku Islands, and I think a lot of Japanese feel the same way," he said, referring the disputed chain of islands China calls the Diaoyus.

The irony is that by blowing the dispute up into a major international confrontation, China has inadvertently pushed Japanese voters to the nationalistic end of the spectrum.

And if Beijing believed that dealing with Noda on the Diaoyus was difficult, his LDP replacement is likely to be even more intransigent.

The way national sentiment is blowing, Abe might even feel it is time to develop emergency port facilities and other infrastructure on the disputed islands.

And that would be deeply unpopular in Beijing.