By Bruce Stronach, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stronach is dean of Temple University, Japan campus. The views expressed are his own.
Japan’s governing party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), have both held leadership elections this past two weeks. Usually this news would have passed unnoticed in the rest of the world, as does most news about domestic Japanese political parties. But the strains in Chinese-Japanese relations over claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has made the world pay closer attention.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the newly elected leader of the LDP, has attracted particular attention for a number of reasons, not least because of his conservative reputation. It should, of course, come as no surprise that he would take a conservative stance toward China as it has been his policy for many years. And frankly, what would anyone expect? If you are going to run for the leadership of Japan’s conservative party you aren’t going to have much of a chance if you soft-pedal the China issue. However, he also appointed Shigeru Ishiba as LDP secretary general, the party’s No. 2 post. Although former Defense Minister Ishiba was his main rival for the leadership, he is as conservative as Abe. To strengthen his conservative credentials further, Abe has also clearly reaffirmed the U.S.-Japan alliance and Japan’s right to collective self-defense.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had agreed to call an election “soon” as a quid pro quo for LDP support for a consumption tax bill. That was accomplished, and so it is assumed that even though Noda will likely try to evade fulfilling his pledge, he will have no choice but to follow through, possibly during the Diet session that begins this month. Most pundits assume that the LDP will be returned in that election, meaning Abe’s probable return as prime minister is drawing much scrutiny. In that sense, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute is but one issue among many, and not even the most important. After all, the measure of Abe’s leadership will not be his standing up to the Chinese, but rather his ability to lead the political system back to a place where the two major parties and their coalition partners can collaborate on policies and legislation that are sorely needed to lift Japan from the morass into which it has been sinking for some time.
But many seriously question Abe’s leadership abilities, with some accusing him of starting a five-year drought in Japanese political leadership that has seen five more Japanese prime ministers since he stepped down. Abe’s abrupt resignation five years ago, after the LDP suffered an electoral defeat in the upper house, ultimately precipitated the party’s defeat in the lower house in September 2009. His decision to quit raised questions about his character in a culture that values perseverance.
Abe has announced that while he will push Noda to make good on his promise to call elections soon, he will not use the tactic of boycotting Diet sessions “at any cost” when the new session begins in October. This is at least a small indication that he may be taking a less confrontational stance with the DPJ and may be willing to collaborate on legislation, such as issuing deficit-covering bonds, seen as being in the best interests of the nation as a whole.
The DPJ for its part announced a new cabinet lineup on October 1 and it was hoped that there might be some appointments intended to increase interparty dialogue, but a quick scan of the new appointments holds little hope, with one exception, namely new Finance Minister Koriki Jojima, who still has strong ties to the LDP.
But maintaining the harmony even within his own party in the run-up to the next election will pose difficulties for Abe, who appointed Ishiba as secretary general in recognition of the fact that Ishiba out-polled him in the regional chapters of the LDP by an almost 2:1 ratio. As a consequence, Abe’s victory has come at a cost to his party, as the regional chapters play a crucial role in promoting the party as a whole as well as supporting local candidates, meaning some may lack motivation in the upcoming general election.
All this means that while the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island dispute will continue to hold the international headlines for a while, Japan’s strength as a nation – and as a global player – will be determined by the up-coming Diet election and the next government’s ability to foster interparty collaboration for the good of the country.