- Associated Press - Thursday, December 20, 2012

WAKO, Japan — The Liberal Democratic Party’s victory in Japan’s parliamentary election Sunday virtually ensures that Shinzo Abe, who resigned as prime minister for health reasons in 2007 after just a year in office, will get a second chance to try to lead Japan out of its economic slump.

In Mr. Abe’s political resurrection, the Japanese are confiding their hopes for a national comeback, backing Liberal Democratic pledges to restore the good times of the 1980s and ‘90s, before the financial bubble burst and the economy slid into a 20-year funk.

Mr. Abe epitomizes the Liberal Democratic Party brand of conservatism and nationalism that kept the party in power for most of the post-World War II era, until it was ousted by the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009. He is widely expected to become prime minister when his party forms a new government on Dec. 26.

Despite his tough talk, it is unclear just how determined or able he will be to pursue his nationalist convictions, which could worsen already testy relations with China, hurting the auto industry and others with huge investments in the fast-growing Chinese market.

“We are not sure what Abe will turn out to be like,” said Yoichi Funabashi, former editor-in-chief of the Asahi newspaper. “Once he gets into office, he will likely retreat a bit.”

Under Mr. Abe, the Liberal Democrats claim to have been reborn, though their platform differs little from strategies of the past, calling for a restoration of Japan’s economic strength through public-works spending, greater emphasis on patriotism and love of country, and a more nationalist foreign policy.

“We have reflected deeply over these three years,” Mr. Abe proclaimed in a final day of campaigning Saturday, speaking to a crowd of several hundred mostly middle-aged and older supporters massed in the morning chill outside a train station in Wako, a Tokyo bedroom community of 80,000 in the city’s northwestern suburbs.

Many voters seem less interested, anyway, in new ideas than in a return to the familiar – just what Mr. Abe has to offer:

“We tried with the Democratic Party of Japan for the last three years, which made me realize how much better the Liberal Democratic Party was,” said part-time worker Hitomi Furuya, 45, after Mr. Abe sped off to his next campaign stop.

“We believe the [Liberal Democratic Party] is more capable,” said Fumie Asano, beaming as she stood outside the train station with her husband.

“I trust them more,” said Mrs. Asano, a member of the Buddhist-backed Komeito Party, which is expected to join with the Liberal Democrats in a coalition that would return Mr. Abe to the boxy glass-and-granite Kantei, Japan’s version of the White House.

A rising political star

Mr. Abe’s return to the pinnacle of Japanese leadership is as unlikely a rebound as his first ascent seemed inevitable.

When he took office the first time, in 2006, Mr. Abe was the country’s youngest prime minister, a princeling with an impeccable political lineage: His father, Shintaro Abe, was a former foreign minister, and his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi had been arrested as a war criminal after World War II but reinstated to become prime minister.

Mr. Abe graduated from Tokyo’s Seikei University in 1977 and studied politics at the University of Southern California. He worked for a time at Kobe Steel before becoming a political aide to his father in 1982.

After his father’s death, Mr. Abe ran for parliament’s lower house and was elected in 1993.

A soft-spoken, natty dresser, Mr. Abe rose through the Liberal Democratic ranks, aided by a successful, high-profile battle in 2002 to win the release from North Korea of five kidnapped Japanese citizens, who returned home for what was supposed to be a brief visit and, at his insistence, stayed.

That helped burnish his image as a defense hawk.

But scandals among his Cabinet ministers and problems with ulcerative colitis brought that term in office to an abrupt end.

In a September party election, Mr. Abe came from behind to defeat ex-defense chief Shigeru Ishiba as head of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Abe long has allied himself with other conservative politicians who favor a higher-profile role for Japan’s military and support controversial visits to the Yasukuni war shrine.

He denies there is proof that Japan’s military really forced women into sexual slavery during the war and maintains that Japan’s history textbooks are too self-critical over wartime atrocities.

Economic focus

Such stances are certain to rile China at a time of already acute antagonisms over a territorial dispute.

Still, economic imperatives and Mr. Abe’s strong links to the corporate world may help temper his hard line toward China.

His wife, Akie, is the socialite daughter of a former president of one of Japan’s leading confectioners, Morinaga & Co.

Despite the Liberal Democrats‘ conservative stance on gender equality, the future first lady is a businesswoman in her own right, owning a pub in downtown Tokyo.

Surveys forecasting a Liberal Democratic victory have driven recent rallies on Japan’s stock market and helped drive the Japanese yen – which Mr. Abe has pledged to weaken – to a 20-month low against the U.S. dollar.

Mr. Abe is calling for sharply increased public-works spending and further easing of Japan’s already loose monetary policies.

Such strategies could give Japan’s construction and materials industries at least a temporary boost and help exporters by weakening the Japanese yen – which has remained at stubbornly high levels thanks to the conviction among global investors that the country remains a financial safe haven.

Abe-nomics, the magazine Shukan Bunshun calls it: “From People to Concrete. The Abe Bubble Is Coming!” it said in a front-page story forecasting a return to old-time pork-barrel politics and a “fast-forwarding” of mortgage lending.

Mr. Funabashi, the former newspaper editor, said Mr. Abe’s room to maneuver likely will be constrained by the Liberal Democrats‘ likely coalition partner the Komeito, by powerful business interests and even by Japan’s main ally, the United States.

“These will be pressuring Abe toward the center,” Mr. Funabashi, now chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, told a conference in Tokyo.