You do have to wonder what is going on in Japanese politics.
With the (re)election of Shinzo Abe as the leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP – Jiminto) this week, as The Economist wrily remarked, the Japanese people must be thinking that politics only serves to inflict cruel jokes upon them.
The machinations behind the scenes appeared odd – former Minister Shigeru Ishiba had the numbers on the first ballot in which the party grassroots could have a say. But he did not win an outright majority and so the selection went to a second ballot of the parliamentary party which Mr. Abe seems to have won comfortably. In a field which included LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara (son of the Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara) and former Finance Minister (and the sitting LDP President) Sadakazu Tanigaki, you might be forgiven that a fresh face and a new voice might have been more attractive to the electorate, not warmed-over has-beens that already had a go and did not do that much.
But the LDP’s ‘knifing’ of their President prior to the vote seemed to indicate factional infighting more than anything. Not 48 hours prior to pulling out of the race, Tanigaki, who is also seen as a rather weak character, maintained that he would be running. Only after a meeting with Nobuteru Ishihara did he suddenly announce that he would not, a clear indication that he no longer had the numbers (if he had them at all) – something rather blatantly confirmed with Ishihara’s decision to run only a matter of hours later.
In nearly every article on Shinzo Abe’s first crack at the premiership, there is always reference to the fact that his term only last a year before he resigned citing health reasons (colitis). While those reasons were genuine, Abe is resigned to always getting questions about his health when appearing at press conferences and when he threw his hat in the ring, he tried to address the issue in a slightly off-hand way saying that he was feeling a lot better now than he was before. Polls currently indicate that the LDP would defeat the DPJ coalition if elections were held today – that’s not new news. But the LDP does not have sufficient support to form a government without some sort of coalition. Who then, would they turn to ?
Coincidentally (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view), a new voice on the right is emerging and is gaining supporters and some popularity. The controversial Mayor of Osaka Toru Hashimoto is looking to build on his regional success with the Osaka Restoration Party (Osaka Ishin no Kai) by gouing national with the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai).
There is no doubting Hashimoto’s charisma and can-do attitude. But is Japan ready, much less willing, for a politician with a ‘take no prisoners’ combative style ? Perhaps to jump-start the economy, yes. After almost two decades of ‘nothing’, it would seem that those who care are grasping at straws now. But with the balance of economic power firmly in the grip of other countries, notably China, it would arguably seem that this would do more harm than good. At this delicate juncture with Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea sinking by the minute and no chance of economic growth on the horizon, a shift to the right and fanning the flames of nationalism does not seem like a good idea. But right now, there would seem to be a degree of inevitability about it. Watch this space.