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Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012
Health concerns, rightwing policies dog party's new chief
By JUN HONGO and NATSUKO FUKUE
The resurgence of Shinzo Abe has quickly raised concerns among political experts who note that the former prime minister's shaky health contributed to the abrupt end of his yearlong term in 2007.
"His health remains a worry," although Abe has repeatedly insisted that a medicine developed in recent years has drastically improved his inflammatory bowel condition, said Fukashi Horie, a professor emeritus of political science at Keio University in Tokyo.
Of concern, too, is the way Abe, who was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party for a second time on Wednesday, returned to the top post: by knocking out Shigeru Ishiba in a come-from-behind runoff election limited to the party's Diet members.
In the first round, which included votes from the party's rank and file, the former defense minister finished far ahead.
"Ishiba may have been better suited to lead the LDP through the general election, considering he appears to have more public support," Horie added.
Abe hardly carries a fresh image heading into the general election. While the LDP remains more popular than the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, critics say that joining hands with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and his new national party, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), may be the deciding factor.
All five LDP presidential candidates have said it is too early to discuss teaming up with the new force. But, in the end, Abe's apparently receptive position on Hashimoto's recent political overtures may have helped give him the nod over Ishiba.
"However, it is also true that there are those within the LDP who do not support Ishin no Kai," Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said Wednesday.
"Abe has an obligation to such people as well," the expert added, warning that the new LDP chief must be careful not to split the party over the issue.
Despite his triumph, the former prime minister's comeback remains incomplete unless he can succeed in pressuring Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to dissolve the Lower House, an act Noda indicated he might put off after cruising to re-election as head of the DPJ last week.
The Noda administration, however, remains vulnerable as it seeks support to pass legislation required to authorize the issuance of bonds to cover 40 percent of the current budget.
On the other hand, pundits say Abe's high profile will make him an easy target for the DPJ during Diet deliberations.
Abe had a troubled run as LDP leader starting in 2006, when he succeeded former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi after serving as chief Cabinet secretary. In September of that year Abe became the first prime minister born after the war.
The grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe started strong with a 65 percent public support rate when his Cabinet was launched, according to an NHK survey.
But within a year he was gone, plagued by resignations of Cabinet members as well as his controversial claim that there was no evidence the Imperial Japanese military was involved in coercing women into sexual slavery during the war.
His right-leaning policies remain intact.
Earlier this month, Abe said he would "like to adopt a new version" of the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledging Japan's involvement in recruiting "comfort women." This more "historically accurate" version, as he describes it, effectively denies that the military forced women and girls to serve as sex slaves.
The revisionist lawmaker also touched on a constitutional taboo during the LDP race: exercising Japan's right to collective self-defense. Regarding the ongoing territorial dispute with Beijing, Abe has said that Tokyo "should lodge a strong protest with China."
"Abe's strength is his experience, especially in foreign policy," Keio University's Horie said, adding that he showed himself capable in 2002 when he helped Koizumi repatriate abductees from North Korea.
But, Sophia University's Nakano said that if Abe continues to push his hawkish policies, including revising the Kono statement, then Japan "will isolate itself in Asia" and relationships with China and South Korea may further sour.
Among his other policies, Abe has called the proposal to abandon nuclear power generation "irresponsible" in the absence of other practical options.
He opposes joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership but has said he would endorse expanding Japan's trade through other means, including free-trade agreements.
On raising the consumption tax, Abe has said that Japan must end its decades-long deflation before asking the public to shoulder the burden of a double tax increase.
Whether Abe can unite the LDP following its first presidential runoff vote in 40 years will also be key.
"I think Abe will be better at uniting the LDP than Ishiba since he has experience" in leading the party, Keio University's Horie said. While factions have lost influence within the LDP, Abe does have the support of its largest, led by Nobutaka Machimura.
Sophia University's Nakano, however, is more critical of Abe's second turn as LDP chief.
"I think much of the public is appalled that (Abe) is getting a second chance, especially after quitting his job the way he did last time," he said.
"It's even possible Abe's appointment as president of the LDP could send voters back to the DPJ."