In Japan, a Landslide Victory for Abe's Party, Despite Scant Enthusiasm – New York Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answered questions during a television interview at his party headquarters in Tokyo on Sunday.
December 14, 2014

TOKYO — Despite low voter turnout, the governing party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections held Sunday that position Mr. Abe to remain Japan’s leader for several more years.

The question, political analysts say, is what Mr. Abe will do with his renewed mandate.

When the prime minister called the snap elections last month, he proclaimed them a referendum on his economic-revival policies, known as Abenomics. The policies appeared to be losing steam recently after initially lifting the long-stagnant economy when Mr. Abe took office two years ago.

During the elections, however, he remained vague on what he would do to breathe new life into Abenomics — policies that have so far amounted to little more than pressing the central bank to flood the economy with cash. Now that Mr. Abe has won a convincing victory, he and his party face the hard part: actually delivering on those promises to engineer a more lasting recovery.

Economists have called on Mr. Abe to follow through with promised changes to open Japan’s still-protected markets to greater competition — such as by making it easier for young Japanese to create start-ups — and to more trade and foreign investment.

The promised changes, however, will require Mr. Abe to challenge many of the vested interest groups that supported him during this election, like the powerful national farming cooperatives.

At the same time, political analysts have also been speculating about what the conservative Mr. Abe may attempt outside the economic realm, something about which he said even less during the elections.

With his governing party now under no foreseeable legal obligation to call elections for another four years, analysts said, Mr. Abe may use that time to try to pass less-popular changes, such as expanding the role of his nation’s military or promoting more positive portrayals of Japan’s history in the era of World War II.

“Now that he was won such a big victory, Prime Minister Abe has given no clear message on what will he try to accomplish with it,” said Naoto Nonaka, a political expert at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. “Despite the rhetoric about Abenomics, his main goal seemed to be securing his own political position.”

If so, Mr. Abe appears to have succeeded. The final tally shows the prime minister’s Liberal Democratic Party won 291 of the 475 seats up for grabs in the powerful lower house. That is slightly fewer than its pre-election total of 295 seats, but enough to still hold a commanding majority in the chamber.

After the size of the victory became apparent, a smiling Mr. Abe appeared before television cameras at the Tokyo headquarters of his party to affix red roses to the names of victorious Liberal Democratic candidates. He said the victory was a call from voters to continue with his Abenomics policies to revitalize Japan, the world’s third-largest economy after the United States and China.

He also seemed to recognize that there was growing discontent with his policies, which have bolstered the stock market but have yet to increase the real incomes of working Japanese.

“Abenomics is still unfinished,” Mr. Abe said on live television. “We have ended the dark stagnation of two or three years ago, but there are still many people who haven’t felt the benefits yet. We need to make sure that the benefits reach them.”

Indeed, despite the size of the victory on Sunday, analysts like Mr. Nonaka said the results did not represent an enthusiastic embrace of Mr. Abe and his party by voters. Rather, they said, the biggest reason for the victory may have been the fact that opposition parties remain in disarray after their last crushing defeat at the polls, two years ago.

In street interviews, Japanese voters said that with the opposition offering no appealing alternatives, they felt no choice but to support the Liberal Democrats. In Chofu, a suburb of Tokyo, voters said that they had not felt any benefits from Abenomics, but said that they were still better than the policies of the opposition Democratic Party, which was widely seen here as mismanaging the country during a stint in power a few years ago.

“Abenomics is not a key issue for me, but there are no other parties who deserve my vote,” said Masashi Shibata, 38, a public employee who said he had voted for the Liberal Democrats. “The Liberal Democratic Party is still better than the Democratic Party.”

In fact, many Japanese appeared to decide not to vote at all. Just some 52 percent of eligible Japanese cast votes on Sunday, the lowest turnout in postwar Japanese history.

Experts said the low turnout benefited the well-organized Liberal Democrats and their still formidable rural vote-gathering machines. The largest opposition group, the Democratic Party, trailed far behind in the final tally, with 73 seats, though it surpassed its pre-election total of 62 seats.

One of the few winners in the opposition was the tiny Communist Party of Japan, which nearly tripled its number of seats to 21, enough to allow the party to submit bills for a vote by the lower house. The Communists seemed to draw many of the protest votes of disgruntled voters, analysts said.

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Chofu, Japan.

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