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Abe’s safe bet

Dec 13,2014 - Last updated at Dec 13,2014

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has thrown out the political playbook.

With two years remaining in his term, and with his Liberal Democratic Party enjoying comfortable majorities in the Diet’s upper and lower houses, Abe has called a snap general election for December.

Political leaders and pundits worldwide are scratching their heads at Abe’s decision to risk his extensive reform agenda with a throw of the electoral dice.

But while Abe may be known for his boldness, he is no reckless gambler. On the contrary, he would have been reckless to launch the third “arrow” of his so-called Abenomics strategy for reviving Japan’s economy — supply-side structural reforms — without a clear mandate for reform.

Fortunately, Abe is almost certain to receive that mandate — not least because he lacks credible opponents.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), essentially imploded following its previous turn in government, which was characterised by economic malaise and foreign policy blunders. And Japan’s other political parties have done nothing to convince voters that they deserve to emerge from the political wilderness.

In a sense, Abe is not running against his parliamentary opponents, but against himself.

After the first two arrows of Abenomics — expansionary monetary and fiscal policies — raised expectations that Japan’s economy would finally escape stagnation, the country began slipping back into recession in the second quarter of this year.

As any democratic politician will attest, disappointed expectations may well be the toughest electoral opponent of all. Just ask former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Of course, Abe did not face the kind of sky-high expectations that Sarkozy and, for that matter, US President Barack Obama did.

It is not that Abe’s 2012 campaign lacked ambition; he set out a bold economic reform agenda and promised to boost Japan’s global influence.

But after two decades of leaders who — with the exception of Junichiro Koizumi — promised little and achieved less, Japanese voters had little reason to expect that Abe would follow through on his pledges.

Moreover, Japan’s powerful bureaucracy — which has a long history of impeding reform (and has taken too little of the blame for the country’s “lost decades” of stagnation) — was probably not convinced that the election had authorised Abe to push for sweeping change.

Expecting Abe to show the same inertia as the DPJ premiers who preceded him, they behaved in the way they always had — advancing their own interests, instead of faithfully enacting the policies of the elected government.

But Abe was not deterred.

In his first weeks in office, he announced a 10.3 trillion yen ($116 billion) stimulus bill and appointed Haruhiko Kuroda, a determined, dynamic and bold thinker, to head the Bank of Japan.

Kuroda wasted little time in initiating expansionary monetary policies — following in the footsteps of the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England — to help reflate the economy.

The first two arrows of Abenomics began to take effect almost immediately.

Japan experienced sustained inflation for the first time since the early 1990s. The stock market boomed. The yen fell to a more realistic level against other currencies. Consumer confidence rose marginally.

But Abe knows that all of this will be for naught unless and until the third arrow is launched.

Beyond his economic strategy, Abe has also delivered in terms of foreign policy.

He has visited almost all Japan’s Asian neighbours, reinvigorating relationships that the DPJ neglected.

In particular, his personal rapport with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has galvanised their countries’ emerging partnership, creating a new strategic centre of gravity in Asia.

Moreover, Abe has settled a nettlesome dispute with the United States over its military bases on the island of Okinawa, thereby fortifying Japan’s relationship with its main ally.

And, by reinterpreting Article 9 of the constitution to allow Japan to exercise “collective self-defence” and provide aid to an ally under attack, Abe has made Japan a far more reliable partner for the US and its Asian allies.

Most important, Abe has initiated a realistic and coherent relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In recent years, rising tensions with China have stripped Japan of the illusion of friendship and goodwill that led it to inject many hundreds of billions of dollars into the country.

With a more pragmatic approach, however, Asia’s two largest economies can find a way to support domestic and regional stability, giving them the space to pursue economic reform at home.

Allowing secondary issues to jeopardise peace and progress would simply be irresponsible.

Unlike in the last election, Japanese voters now know exactly the kind of government Abe intends to lead.

They know that he intends to follow through on his plan to include Japan in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the US-backed mega-regional free-trade deal currently being negotiated — a move that will require some sacrifices at home.

Abe has proved that reinvigorating the economy is his top priority.

In this sense, his decision to postpone the second round of the consumer-tax hike planned for next year is not fiscally irresponsible; on the contrary, it reflects his recognition that Japan’s economy is not yet strong enough to withstand a sharp tax increase.

Finally, Japan’s voters know that Abe is committed to building a durable and consensual regional peace, without which the rest of his plans could not succeed.

There is no doubt about Abe’s intentions or policy commitments.

If the Japanese public returns him to office, he will have the mandate he needs to complete his ambitious, pragmatic and forward-thinking agenda.

It is now up to the Japanese people to give him that mandate, effectively choosing to end two decades of economic malaise and geopolitical irrelevance.

The writer, Japan’s former defence minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council and currently is a member of the National Diet. ©Project Syndicate, 2014.

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