As with the last lower house election in Japan in 2009, a change of government was widely expected well in advance of yesterday's poll. But as was also the case in 2009, what was surprising was the size of the swing away from the ruling party.
The LDP, with its long-standing coalition partner, New Komeito, have won over two-thirds of the 480 seats in the powerful lower house with the coalition more than doubling its representation. The ousted DPJ has lost 251 of its 308 seats and struggled to stay ahead of the new right-wing Restoration Party as the second largest party in the lower house.
As with the previous government, the new Abe Administration is stuck with the unenviable task of trying to navigate Japan through a worsening domestic socio-economic situation and external security environment. With this as background, I see three likely changes, two key continuities and two things to keep an eye on as a result of yesterday's election.
- The end of the 'twisted parliament': unlike the DPJ, the LDP now leads majorities in both the upper and lower houses and has a two-thirds majority in the lower house it can use to override the upper house if needed. This should end the legislative gridlock that gripped the DPJ Government and should ease legislative change.
- Return to traditional and failed economic policies: Abe's LDP is less economically liberal than Noda's DPJ. Abe has promised to boost spending on infrastructure and create pressure for even looser monetary policy while edging away from increasing the consumption tax and Japan's interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
- Voter alienation: the 2009 landslide for the DPJ was due to voters' alienation with the LDP and excitement with the DPJ. Yesterday's election, with its low voter turnout and thumping of the DPJ, means this alienation now spreads to both parties. The DPJ lost this election; the LDP did not win it.
- Japan's security policy 'normalisation': there is now strong bipartisan (or 'tri-partisan' if one includes the 54-seat Restoration Party) support for Japan to more actively assert its sovereign claims to disputed territories and to boost its military force projection capabilities and alliance relationship with the US. Political change in the People's Republic of China and South Korea should mean that the Northeast Asia's territorial disputes will heat up even more.
- Diversifying partners: Abe was prime minister when the 2007 Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was signed in Tokyo and is a strong advocate of stronger security relations with partners beyond the US. He has a particular interest in closer relations with India and Australia.
- The fate of the DPJ: the DPJ's 2009 victory promised a true two-party system in Japan. Its decimation after only one term in office may end this promise. Many ex-LDPers in the DPJ may choose to migrate back to their first political home.
- Abe's leadership: Abe was widely panned as a weak (by Japanese standards) prime minister when he stepped down in 2007. Will he be able to prove the critics wrong and control the again-dominant LDP and its reinvigorated factions?
Photo of a 2007 election poster featuring Shinzo Abe by Flickr user m-louis.