Old faithful: Japan hands the reins to its longtime ruling party
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Japan gave its old faithful Liberal Democratic Party a landslide victory Sunday, making veteran politician Shinzo Abe its new prime minister.
The LDP has been in power most of the time since the end of World War II, except for the past three years when it was supplanted by the Democratic Party. The Democrats' relatively brief period was troubled by a number of killer developments, none of which were really its fault.
There was the earthquake, the consequent tsunami and the eventual Fukushima nuclear disaster. All of that occurred during the global recession, which struck Japan particularly hard.
The result was the perpetuation in Japan of a long-standing slowdown. Since its growth rate is currently negative, the state of the economy and what the parties would do about it became the primary focus of the campaign. The voters were not pleased by the performance of the Democratic Party, so they turned back to the LDP, which claimed to have reformed itself and proclaimed a strong nationalist message.
For the United States, Mr. Abe and the LDP are a known and relatively comfortable partner in Japan, a close ally and the world's third-largest economy after the United States and China. It is generally estimated that the somewhat militant position he took on the rocky outcrops in the East China Sea that Japan disputes with China and Japan's old quarrels with South Korea will thaw with the morning sun. For Mr. Abe to revive the Japanese economy he will need good economic and financial relations with both China and South Korea. Testy nationalism won't improve those matters.
Problems remain in U.S. relations with Japan. One is the continued presence of 51,000 U.S. troops and many bases in Japan, particularly on the island of Okinawa. They can be seen as necessary for the United States to be able to fulfill its treaty obligations to defend Japan, but they also remain an irritant in relations, in effect a slur on Japanese sovereignty 67 years after World War II. Americans question their presence for cost reasons.
Another issue is U.S. attempts to balance its trade with Japan as an exporting nation that has an economy still somewhat closed to outside elements.
The United States will also be interested to see that Mr. Abe's campaign defiance of China and South Korea does not get in the way of President Barack Obama's desire to improve America's situation in Asia by implementing his policy pivot toward that region.
First Published December 19, 2012 12:00 am