Around this time last year, Fareed Zakaria named 2012 the “Year of the Election“. The name made sense: China, Russia, Japan, France and the US all had elections or leadership transitions this year, to say nothing of the multitude of smaller nations that made changes at the top.
But while most attention has been paid to the transitions in China, France, and, obviously, the U.S., Ian Bremmer argues that Japan’s election of Shinzo Abe was the “Godzilla” of the bunch, and the only one likely to generate a true shift on the international scene:
Yet the election that just saw Shinzo Abe return to the prime minister’s office was a statement about the kind of country Japan wants to be for the next few years. And it has major implications for the U.S., China and others.
Abe’s party, the Liberal Democrats, defeated the ruling Democratic Party of Japan in a landslide, capitalizing on several years of ineffective government by the DPJ. A faltering economy, mismanagement of the nuclear aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and a growing national debt all doomed the DPJ. But the election showed something else about Japan: It is increasingly nationalistic.
Along with the Liberal Democrats’ victory, a new party, the Japan Restoration Party, made significant headway, winning dozens of seats to become the third-strongest bloc in Japan’s lower house. The Restoration Party wants to remilitarize, rip up the U.S.-brokered Japanese constitution and install a federalized system that would break Japan up into self-governing regions. There’s a real nativist streak at work.
Indeed, while Abe may be less hawkish than the extreme nationalists of the Restoration Party, the nationalist wave sweeping Japan played a decisive role in his victory. Abe is obviously aware of this, as in the days after the election he reiterated his commitment to a a hard line against China in no uncertain terms. Few concrete policy ideas have been put forward, but it ‘s obvious that something serious has changed between Japan and China. The deteriorating relationship between the world’s second and third-largest economies and close neighbors in an increasingly volatile region should make the world take note.
This is a marked contrast to the other elections in major countries. The election in the U.S. yielded no change worth speaking of, Putin’s election was less of a transfer of power than a change of titles, and even China’s leadership transition was a long-planned affair that is unlikely to yield many surprises, at least in the short term.
For the first time in decades, Japanese politics are globally relevant and that in itself is something of a revolution.