Voters listen to a stump speech by Japan Restoration Party leader Shintaro… (Franck Robichon / European…)
TOKYO -- Japanese voters head to the polls Sunday and are projected to return to power the conservative, often nationalist onetime ruling party headed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Opinion polls by major Japanese media organizations are predicting that the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, which ruled the country almost without interruption from the mid-1950s until its ouster in 2009, will win more than half of the 480 lower house seats.
The party's return to power would come amid a recession, fear-mongering over Japan’s economic slippage behind China and disappointment with incumbent Democratic Party of Japan’s handling of last year’s tsunami and nuclear disaster.
Also expected to make gains are new crop of smaller parties with names such as Tomorrow and Restoration, reflecting their promises to bring back Japan’s lost glory.
The strongest of them is the Japan Restoration Party headed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and controversial former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. It was Ishihara who set in motion the current standoff with China with an ill-advised plan to buy and nationalize a contested island chain called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.
Abe’s Liberal Democrats -- along with the Restoration Party -- are pushing to amend Japan’s post-World War II pacifist constitution to allow a more robust military.
"I promise to protect Japan's land and sea, and the lives of the Japanese people no matter what," said Abe, while campaigning for the party’s leadership this year. He has also spoken frequently about Japan’s need to move past the "postwar regime" of U.S. occupation in order to restore its national pride.
There are a host of other issues that appeal to the conservatives' agenda. North Korea’s successful launch of a multi-stage missile last week has heightened calls for more defense spending. Ishihara has spoken openly about the need to consider a "nuclear deterrent," a topic that was until recently anathema in a country with bitter memories of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ultranationalists have wanted to change textbooks to downplay Japan’s responsibility for World War II atrocities such as the massacre in the Chinese city of Nanjing and the use of "comfort women" by troops.
"The Senkaku Islands and then the Takeshima Island issue [a dispute with South Korea] have triggered a stronger mood in Japan to protect its honor," said Seishiro Sugihara, 71, chairman of a group called Japan Society for History Textbook Reform.
Political analysts say the change of tide is not so much a matter of Japanese jingoism as it is broad disappointment over Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda’s failure to jump-start the economy.
When Noda's Democratic Party was ushered into power three years ago, it vowed to slash public spending, avoid tax increases and fix problems with the pension system -- promises it has not been able to fulfill. Japan’s economy shrunk 3.5% in the third quarter of this year, raising fears of a recession in the world’s third-largest economy.
"I think the Japanese public just feels stuck. The economy has not improved. China has surpassed them and problems with a low birthrate and dwindling population are yet to be resolved," said Tetsuro Kato, a political scientist at Waseda University. "The public wants stronger leadership and they haven't seen enough of it under the current government."
If the Liberal Democratic Party wins as expected, Kato foresees higher defense spending and more pork-barrel public works projects, adding to an already ballooning debt.
Academics say that Abe’s rhetoric about standing up to China is likely to calm down after the fervor of the campaign season.
"Japan's manufacturing industry strongly supports [Abe's party], so although there is some nationalistic election rhetoric, I doubt the party will take moves -- once they are in power -- to hurt business relations with China" in which Japanese companies are heavily invested in, said Hiroyuki Kawanobe, an economics policy professor at Tokai University in Tokyo.
He also said it is unlikely that Abe, even with a big win, would have the requisite votes in the upper house of parliament to reform the pacifist constitution.
The danger is that the hawkish Restoration Party, which could win enough seats to be an influential player in the next government, will press its own nationalist agenda. The party also is expected to push for shifting more decision-making power to regional government, strengthening its bases in Tokyo and Osaka.
"A decentralized government with strong regions like Osaka or Tokyo, which the two leaders are from, may be able to turn the overall Japanese economy into a more fiscally balanced state," said Kawanobe. "But it may lead to an imbalance of rich and poor regional economies."
Another issue in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster from last year’s tsunami is the future of nuclear power. The Democratic Party has proposed to wean Japan from nuclear energy by the end of the 2030s. The Liberal Democratic Party, which promoted nuclear power for decades, has said it would be "irresponsible" to completely abandon nuclear power.
Abe, 58, the scion of a powerful political family, was Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister when elected in 2006, but he resigned after less than a year because of a series of scandals and a digestive ailment.
Since then, there has been a revolving door of prime ministers. Noda, who took office in September 2011, is the longest-serving prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi, Abe's predecessor, left office in 2006.
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Nagano reported from Tokyo and Demick from Beijing