Abe Returns To Lead Japanese Opposition

By: Posted By Jovarie Downing
By: Posted By Jovarie Downing

Tokyo (Financial Times) -- Japan's biggest opposition party has elected former prime minister Shinzo Abe as its leader, hoping the nationalist-minded blue blood will be more successful in engineering a return to power than he was during his first stint leading the nation.

The election of Abe, who resigned as prime minister in 2007 after a tumultuous year in office, marks a shift to the right for the Liberal Democratic Party that could heighten tensions with China and South Korea.

The LDP is seen as being on course to become the largest party in the Diet's lower house at a general election that must be held by next summer, making Abe, 58, the leading contender to be Japan's next prime minister.

The new party leader -- whose maternal grandfather was also a prime minister of Japan and whose father served as foreign minister -- promised to bring together the LDP's fractious factions in a "no-side" leadership.

"We will recover Japan and make a strong Japan," Abe said.

However, regional neighbours are likely to be concerned by his desire to revise Japan's pacifistic constitution to remove a clause in which the nation renounces the right to wage war, as well as his views on disputes over territory and Japan's past occupation of its neighbors including China and South Korea.

Abe has called for a rethink of a 1993 apology issued by Japan's government to foreign "comfort women" forced to work as prostitutes by the Japanese military in the 1930s and 1940s -- a move that would be sure to outrage South Korea.

We will recover Japan and make a strong Japan

Shinzo Abe, former Japan prime ministerSeoul and Beijing will also be offended if Abe follows through on suggestions he would resume prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan's war dead including a handful of convicted war criminals.

Sino-Japanese ties have already been badly strained by a dispute over ownership of the Senkaku Islands, a remote and uninhabited archipelago in the East China Sea that is controlled by Tokyo but claimed by China.

But Jun Iio, a political scientist at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said that during his previous stint in power Abe did not visit Yasukuni and presided over a marked improvement in ties with China -- something Beijing and Seoul would remember. "They will probably wait and see how he acts," Iio said.

Abe himself on Wednesday stressed his intention to "defend" the Senkaku Islands' territorial waters but added that his decision in 2006 to make a trip to China his first foreign visit showed the importance he put on Sino-Japanese ties.

"Where national interests collide we have to think strategically in order to control the situation," he said. "That was my thinking then and it has not changed at all."

Naoto Nonaka, a professor at Gakushuin university, said Abe's nationalist intentions were likely to be softened in office, especially if more mainstream LDP colleagues had a say in diplomatic issues.

"Things will get a bit more dangerous if he staffs the institutions controlling foreign policy with close associates who all share the same opinions," Nonaka said.

The woes of the center-left ruling Democratic party, which has struggled in office since ousting the LDP in 2009, mean the LDP is expected to do well at the looming general election.

However, few voters are enthusiastic about an LDP return to power, and be is considerably less popular than other party heavyweights.

His short stint as prime minister was marred by policy and electoral setbacks and a sudden resignation he blamed on health problems he said were now resolved.

Still, Mr Abe has sought to portray his experience as prime minister as an asset -- saying losing a Diet upper house election had been instructive. "I have experience of failure and I want to make use of that experience," he said.

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