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PM Abe wins big in Japan upper house poll

With both chambers under governmental control, PM Shinzo Abe will have support necessary to push through painful structural reforms

AFP , Sunday 21 Jul 2013
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd L), and the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), raises his fist atop a van while campaigning for the July 21 Upper house election in Tokyo July 20, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
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Voters gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a resounding victory in upper house elections Sunday, exit polls showed, likely ushering in a new period of stability for politically volatile Japan.

The projected victory means both chambers will be under governmental control, unblocking the bottleneck that has hampered legislation for the last six short-term premiers.

That will strengthen Abe's hand as he tries to push through painful, but necessary, structural reforms aimed at dragging Japan out of two decades of economic malaise.

"A majority of voters wanted politics that can make decisions, and wanted stability in politics," Masahiko Komura, vice president of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, told national broadcaster NHK. "That must have brought about this result."

Exit polls by NHK showed the LDP and its junior partner New Komeito claimed at least 71 of the 121 seats that were being contested, and possibly as many as 80.

Other television stations predicted a similar margin of victory.

There are 242 legislators in the upper house, serving six-year terms. Elections are held for half of the seats every three years.

Since romping to power in December's vote for the more powerful lower house, the hard-charging Abe has unleashed a wave of fiscal spending and pressured the central bank to flood the market with easy money.

The moves – the first two "arrows" of a project dubbed "Abenomics" – sent the yen plunging, to the delight of exporters, and the stock market soaring.

This, coupled with some feel-good figures on GDP growth, powered 60-percent-plus public approval ratings for the prime minister, whose disastrous first turn in the top job until September 2007 has paled in the public mind.

The third arrow of Abe's policy programme remains a little hazy, but will include corporate tax breaks, special business zones, plans to boost female participation in the workplace and Japan's participation in a mooted free trade area that encircles the Pacific.

However, observers say these reforms will be tough. Superannuated farmers tending tiny plots make up a powerful lobby group that has already made clear its unease about the extra competition this free trade pact would bring.

The fact that these rural voters also form the backbone of support for Abe's LDP could prove a problem for the premier.

Pundits say a big public endorsement will protect the prime minister from the powerful vested interests inside the party that will agitate against the structural changes which economists agree the country badly needs.

Japan's dishevelled opposition barely put up a fight in the election. The main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, is in disarray after three years of confused governance were capped with a drubbing in December's poll.

They and other smaller parties had united around one thing – the need for Japan to graduate from nuclear power generation, a popular stance in a country badly scarred by the 2011 disaster at Fukushima.

But even Abe's pro-nuclear stance, and his vow to switch back on Japan's 48 mothballed reactors when they have passed rigorous new safety checks, was not enough to dampen enthusiasm for his economic trump card.

"We are on the threshold of economic recovery," Abe told voters on the eve of Sunday's voting.

"This election is virtually a referendum on Abenomics and a gauge to measure voters' expectations from it," said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, professor of politics at the University of Niigata Prefecture.

However, Abe's detractors fear Abenomics is a Trojan Horse aimed at getting the hawkish premier enough power to implement his conservative social agenda.

They fear this will mean a loosening of Japan's constitutional commitment to pacifism, a boosting of the military and a more strident tone in already-strained relations with China and South Korea, both of whom have territorial disputes with Tokyo.

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