Japan's comeback kid revives old ways
ANALYSIS:Five years ago Shinzo Abe tearfully quit as Japan’s leader after succumbing to an ailment that left him spending long periods on the toilet.
Ulcerative colitis leaves sufferers prone to diarrhoea and is worsened by stress, an unfortunate condition for a man forced to sit through long political meetings and deal with a hostile media and plummeting public ratings.
The sight of Abe’s crumpled, doleful features on national TV in September 2007 reinforced the view of many at the time that this son of wealth and privilege literally didn’t have the stomach for the job.
To the surprise of many, however, Abe is back, leading the conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP) to a stunning revival in Sunday’s general election.
The party crushed its left-leaning Democrat (DPJ) rival, which has shed two-thirds of its pre-election strength.
No fewer than eight cabinet members lost seats, including the party’s top spokesman and its finance minister, the highest-ranking electoral casualties since the second World War.
Abe’s political resurrection is all the more remarkable because he appears to be offering much of the same snake-oil medicine that saw him written off five years ago: hawkish foreign policy views abroad and public works spending at home.
The new government faces formidable challenges – an economy that has been declining in relative terms for over two decades, the highest public debt in the developed world, and a rapidly aging and declining workforce. Some of Japan’s once shining corporate stars, including Sony and Sharp, are struggling with record losses.
Japan’s northeast, devastated by last year’s earthquake, tsunami and radiation disaster, has barely begun to rebuild. All but two of the country’s 50 nuclear reactors are offline amid a bitter debate about the future of nuclear power that has raged since the Fukushima crisis.
The LDP remedy, dubbed Abenomics, has already raised eyebrows.
It proposes an ambitious increase in spending on public works, financed by aggressive monetary easing – the same pork-barrel policies that helped the party stay in power for over half a century till 2009.
Abe is banking on jolting the world’s third-largest economy out of a deflationary spiral that has plagued it for years. He is also likely to switch back on the nation’s reactors and face down anti-nuclear protesters, a strategy that will be popular with business but politically risky.
Abe’s prescription for what he sees as declining national confidence may be even riskier. The man who once wrote a book called Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan wants to inject more patriotic education into schools and water down already sparse references to Japanese war crimes.