Japanese voters set to restore LDP to power
Shinzo Abe's LDP offers Japanese voters nothing new domestically, and its military assertiveness could presage confrontation with China
It appears a foregone conclusion that the Liberal Democratic Party will sweep back into power with ease in today's general election.
The new government's biggest foreign policy test will be how to respond to a confident and increasingly assertive China, Japan's adversary in the escalating dispute over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan.
On the domestic front, whether the lessons the party has learned during its three years in opposition are sufficient to keep the electorate happy after the inevitable honeymoon period has elapsed remains to be seen.
Public opinion polls indicate that the LDP, headed by former prime minister Shinzo Abe, will win more than 300 of the 480 seats up for grabs in the more powerful lower house of the Diet.
If the predictions are correct, and multiple polls by different media are all telling precisely the same story, then the current prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, will suffer a major drubbing that could further split his already divided Democratic Party of Japan DPJ).
Noda, who many agree has not done too much wrong in his 15 months in office but is carrying the can for the failures of his predecessors, is expected to announce his resignation as party leader once the results are in.
The election is unprecedented for the number of candidates and the number of parties that are jostling for a place in the Diet. No fewer than 12 parties have declared, most of which have never contested an election before, although their members have stood for other political groupings.
While there was much discussion of the emergence of a "third force" in Japanese politics that would potentially decide the ultimate winner of the vote as it forged alliances with like-minded parties, their popularity has waned in the last couple of weeks of the campaign.
Only three stand out as being genuine contenders for seats in the Diet: the Tomorrow Party of Japan, founded by Shiga governor Yukiko Kada on a broadly environmental platform; the Japan Restoration Party, which brings together outspoken Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto with the equally opinionated Shintaro Ishihara, who was until recently the governor of Tokyo; and Your Party, an offshoot of the DPJ that was set up by Yoshimi Watanabe in 2009.
Just like Japan's two main parties, they are largely marriages of convenience between people with deeply divergent political philosophies designed to win votes. And they are just as much at risk of disagreeing and dissolving once thrust into government.
"I think the polls are pretty clear at this point and the LDP will emerge on Monday morning either with a simple majority by itself, but definitely with a majority when the support of the New Komeito Party is factored in," said Steven Reed, a professor of Japanese political parties at Chuo University.
That is not really a surprise, given that the first DPJ government after the election of September 2009, under Yukio Hatoyama, was "pretty desperate", Reed said, while the next administration, under Naoto Kan, had to deal with the impact and aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the worst natural disaster to strike the country in living memory.
"I think Naoto Kan did a pretty good job but got bad press," said Reed. "But he was also quite poor at handling the media."
Noda, equally, has not been as adept at handling the media as he could have been. Instead of responding to attacks by the opposition and the media, he has kept his counsel and given his enemies free rein to criticise his actions.
"He has gone on the offensive in recent days, but it is too little and too late," Reed said.
It is all a far cry from when the DPJ was elected in 2009 with a landslide majority by an electorate fed up with the broken promises of a series of LDP prime ministers.
"But then the DPJ did exactly the same thing," Reed says with a resigned shrug. The party has gone through three leaders in just over three years and Japan is about to get its eighth leader since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in September 2006. And while the leadership of the nation has drifted, political divisions have become more acute.
The biggest area of disagreement between the major parties is arguably the issue of Japan's relations with its neighbours.
Given what is widely seen within Japan as unwarranted aggression by China towards Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, as well as further afield in the South China Sea, there has been a clear shift to the right amongst the Japanese electorate.
While Noda has said he remains firm on the question of the sovereignty of the islands, he has made it clear that he does not believe a more hawkish approach to China will help the situation. He was also swift to condemn Abe's announcement that, once elected, he would increase the size and strength of Japan's Self-Defence Forces.
Abe has also stated that he favours revising the pacifist Article 9 of Japan's constitution, to permit the nation to rearm and take part in collective self- defence.
The measure that would anger Beijing most of all, however, would be Abe's plan to develop the Diaoyus, possibly by erecting a permanent lighthouse to assist in navigation and building port facilities to protect fishermen at times of bad weather.
Beijing has already stated that it will not accept development of the islands, and the continued presence of Chinese warships and maritime surveillance vessels in waters close to the Diaoyus - in addition to Thursday's overflight by a Chinese government aircraft, said to have been the first such intrusion into Japanese airspace since 1958 - - suggests China will fire a shot across the bows of the incoming administration as it takes office tomorrow.
Closer to home, for most people the state of the national economy and the impact the prolonged downturn is having upon their day-to-day lives is the prime cause for concern. Overtaken by China as the world's second-largest economy and with a national debt of US$13.64 trillion - a whopping 230 per cent of its annual gross domestic product - there are clearly grounds for concern.
Noda proposes a more outward-looking, free-trade approach that is based on Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade pact. The TPP is a major bone of contention in Japan's agricultural sector, which rightly fears that it will lead to a flood of cheap agricultural products onto the market and kill off the labour-intensive domestic sector.
Abe's cure for 20 years of economic malaise revolves around that old favourite of the conservative party - namely, increasing public works spending.
The two parties actually agree on the need to reform Japan's taxation system and changes to the nation's social security system, while there is a broader recognition that measures must be put in place to encourage people to have more children and arrest the worrying slump in the national birth rate.
They disagree on nuclear energy, however, with Abe heeding the demands of his backers in big business that there is an urgent need to restart Japan's nuclear reactors to ensure the nation's industry remains competitive. Noda, on the other hand, has vowed to push ahead with plans to phase out nuclear power over the coming decades.
Ultimately, the rest of the world will only know Japan's new policies once the new government has been in place for a few weeks.
And while Reed believes the LDP will win, he is less convinced of the party's likely longevity.
"I think the DPJ will finish as the second-largest party, which is really all that they have to do," he said. "They have cleansed themselves of some of the disruptive elements in their ranks and there are enough core members of the party who want to govern and who will have learned a lot about the job of governing over these last three years."