"JAPAN is back," announced Shinzo country’s prime minister, on his February visit to Washington, DC. By July 21st it seemed that Mr Abe might have been speaking for himself. He won an election for the upper house of the Diet, and in so doing pulled off one of the most remarkable political comebacks of modern times. He had resigned as prime minister in 2007, politically humiliated and brought low by a chronic illness. Even after he had returned in December 2012 to hand victory to his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), voters had little fondness for his government. But Mr Abe’s strong leadership since then, most notably his “Abenomics” plan to revive the economy, by now has won over the country.
The ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito, a Buddhist-supported party, needed 63 seats to win control of the upper chamber of parliament, which it had lost to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and other parties six years ago. Every three years half of the upper chamber’s 242 seats come up for grabs. This time the LDP and its partner surpassed themselves, together winning 76 seats, to add to the 59 that they bagged in 2010. That gives them a total of 135 seats for the next three years; not just a majority but a stable majority. Mr Abe’s government will enjoy a dominant position over the legislative process in both houses, right down to appointing the chairmen of lawmaking committees.
Mr Abe now has a still larger opportunity to implement Abenomics, his three-part plan of monetary loosening, fiscal stimulus and pro-growth reforms. Among the three “arrows”, as Mr Abe has dubbed them, the third is the most important and the most controversial. The prospect of supply-side structural reforms, badly needed, for instance, to loosen the inflexible labour market, has boosted outside investors’ hopes for Japan and sent its stockmarket soaring. But with the Diet in a “twisted” state, wherein opposition parties in the upper chamber were able to delay or even block legislation passed by the lower house (in which the LDP and New Komeito already had a two-thirds majority), passing third-arrow legislation had looked difficult.
Now the LDP has a much freer rein. The election result also shows that some key opponents of the party’s economic-reform agenda, such as farmers, were in the event unable to punish it for adopting policies they dislike. Japan Agriculture (JA), the country’s most powerful political lobby group, which usually backs the LDP, regarded itself as having been betrayed by Mr Abe’s decision in March to join talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional free-trade agreement which—JA reckons—will harm its members’ livelihoods. In a key battle in rural Yamagata, where JA was backing an independent politician, Yasue Funayama, against the LDP’s less-experienced candidate, Mizuho Onuma, who had been obliged to back joining talks on TPP, Ms Onuma won. This is a good omen for the coming struggle: to persuade the LDP’s vested interests to accept radical third-arrow reforms.
Approaching the election, there were rumours that an increasingly confident Mr Abe had started to aim for an LDP majority all to itself. That would mean would no longer needing to rely on New Komeito’s support. It did not achieve that. However, a good performance by two other, smaller parties, the Japan Restoration Party (JRP) led by the mayor of Osaka, and Your Party, an up-and-coming urban-oriented party, means that Mr Abe’s most closely held personal aim, of changing the post-war constitution laid down by America in 1946, may come into reach. Pursuing it could become a distraction from the third arrow of Abenomics.
The JRP and Your Party broadly favour constitutional revision. New Komeito, on the other hand, which draws its support from Japan’s largest lay-Buddhist organisation, Soka Gakkai, cleaves to the country’s pacifist creed as laid down by the constitution’s Article Nine. If the LDP can persuade New Komeito to soften its stance, perhaps as a way to secure key government posts, the pro-revisionists would gain the two-thirds majority they need in the upper house to start the process. In his post-election comments, Mr Abe made clear that he intends to explore the possibility of constitutional revision sooner rather than later. That comes as something of a surprise; just before the election, revising the constitution seemed to have been put on the back burner.
Post-election, there should at last be an answer to the question of who Mr Abe really is. His opponents reckon that his new focus on economics may have been a mere strategy to secure a big upper-house win. With that achieved, goes the theory, constitutional revision will now become Mr Abe’s chief interest, along with changing Japan’s official view of its wartime record. Campaigning to lead the LDP last autumn, Mr Abe lived up to his earlier reputation as a right-wing historical revisionist. On more than one occasion he hinted to a conservative newspaper that an Abe government could revise earlier statements which have expressed remorse for Japan’s wartime record. He has also said he regrets that during his first term as prime minister he did not pay his respects at the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where the spirits of convicted war criminals are reveredamong the nation’s war dead, on August 15th, the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the second world war.
Governing, say Mr Abe’s close advisers, is not the same as campaigning. But as the prime minister’s popularity soared this spring he sparked anger in South Korea and in China by appearing to question the 1995 Murayama apology (his government quickly backtracked). Already, says Jakob Edberg, of GR Japan, a political consultancy in Tokyo, there are signs that after six months of unity and intense discipline ahead of the election, different voices within the LDP are now competing to control the policy agenda. There are calls for quick “attack” on both the economic reform front, and also on constitutional revision, he notes. A key signal will be whether or not Mr Abe chooses to visit the Yasukuni shrine on August 15th. Such a visit would send a chilling message to Japan’s neighbours in the region, and also to the more left-leaning voters Mr Abe represents.
There are other compelling reasons to concentrate on Abenomics instead. With the first two arrows of the programme already fired, foreign investors are watching closely to see if the third will reach its target. If Mr Abe slackens the pace on economic reform to concentrate on the constitution, says someone close to him, there could be a run on the equity and bond markets. The government must soon make a difficult decision on whether or not to raise a crucial tax on consumption in April 2014. To offset the tax’s dampening effects, strong structural reforms aimed at boosting growth will be essential.
Mr Abe now looks to be in a stronger position than any Japanese leader has been since Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister from 2001 to 2006. He is not expected to face a general election until 2016. And yet his support could evaporate quickly. Overall turnout on July 21st was low, which suggests the party may have thinner support than its winnings would seem to indicate. Just 53% of those eligible to vote went to the polls: a 20-year low, according to Koichi Nakano of SophiaUniversity. Only about one in six Japanese actively backed the LDP. Having swung wildly away from the LDP in 2009, in favour of the DPJ, and then back again in 2012, the voters are as volatile as ever. For the time being, the DPJ is on the ropes; it won a miserable 17 seats and now faces pressure to split or reshape itself radically. But voters could easily swing away from the LDP again in 2016, to whatever opposition grouping has formed in the meantime. These results have delivered a resounding cheer for Abenomics, but there is everything still to prove.