By Charlie Campbell / Beijing
October 23, 2017

In a nod to his nationalist agenda and tough line with rogue state North Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is almost ubiquitously described as a hawk. But phoenix might be a more appropriate avian analogy after Sunday’s general election, when Abe romped back to power despite a series of corruption scandals earlier in the year that had sent his approval rating plummeting to just 26%.

Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party coalition emerged from Sunday’s ballot in control of 312 seats in the 465-member Lower House, restoring his two-thirds “supermajority” and putting the 63-year-old on course to become Japan’s longest-serving post-World War II leader. It’s not the first time Abe has risen from the political ashes — he resigned after a tumultuous year in the charge in 2007 — and his victory injects new impetus into longstanding plans to amend the East Asian nation’s U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution.

His return is also a boon for U.S. President Donald Trump, who has formed a firm friendship with Abe since taking office, especially bonding over a shared love of golf. Trump is due to visit Japan next month during an Asia tour that also includes Vietnam, China and the Philippines, and he will be greeted in Tokyo by Abe, who has been steadfast in supporting Trump’s ramping up of pressure on North Korea.

Speaking to supporters on the eve of Sunday’s vote, Abe said: “We can no longer let ourselves be fooled by North Korea. We cannot succumb to its threats. By taking advantage of our strong diplomacy, we have to make sure the North will have no other option but to change its policy and return to the negotiating table.”

If such a prospect seems farfetched, given the Kim regime’s refusal to entertain such a notion, Abe will be buoyed by achieving the seemingly impossible at Sunday’s election. He rode his luck but it was also a stunning piece of political opportunism.

In February, Abe’s approval rating had fallen to below the 30% so-called “death zone” — he’s now only the second Premier to recover from such doldrums — following allegations he used his influence to help one friend open a veterinary school that was not needed, and another to secure government land for an ultra-nationalist private school at a massive discount. But owing to his tough line on North Korea, he enjoyed a sudden upsurge in support after Kim Jong Un fired two missiles over the Japanese island of Hokkaido in late August and early September.

Seeing the main opposition Democratic Party was in disarray, Abe dissolved Japan’s legislature, or Diet. At the same time, fellow conservative Yuriko Koike — Tokyo’s popular governor and a former television news anchor, who once served as Abe’s Defense Minister — launched the new Party of Hope to challenge Abe.

Koike was realistically the only figure capable of mounting a serious challenge, but she effectively aborted her campaign by opting not to stand for election herself. Her manifesto centered around “12 Zeros” — including, bizarrely, “Zero Hayfever” — which critics lampooned as a jumble of disparate irritations rather than a coherent plan for governance. Voters were further alienated when details emerged of a loyalty pledge that candidates for her party were obliged to sign.

In the end, the Party of Hope took only 49 seats, behind another upstart — the liberal-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan — that won 54 and now appears the main opposition to Abe both in terms of numbers and ideology. Koike called the results “very severe.”

Abe’s personal approval rating remains extremely low, however, and there were doubts whether he would retain the legislative “supermajority” needed to push through his more divisive political plans — such as constitutional changes.

To make matters worse, the weeks leading up to the polls were deluged by heavy rain, hampering campaigning efforts of independents and smaller parties, and then a typhoon arrived right on polling weekend, meaning turnout stood at just 54% and sapping opposition support.

Abe’s victory means that this key U.S. Pacific alliance remains rock solid, in a boost for a Trump administration that is currently sparring with Canada and Mexico over renegotiating Nafta, China over North Korea and trade practices, and the E.U. over immigration and climate change.

“Abe is Washington’s man in Japan,” says Prof. Jeffery Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Temple University Japan. “He’s delivered more on Washington’s security agenda than all of his post-War predecessors combined.”

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