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Japan’s Shinzo Abe promised to run a “no-side” leadership uniting the LDP’s rival groups

  • Abe has called for revision of Japan’s pacifistic constitution, for a more assertive policy on an island dispute
  • Recent territorial disputes are seen as strengthening the hand of Japanese nationalists
  • Abe won a second round of voting among LDP Diet members, taking 108 of the 197 votes cast on Wednesday

(Financial Times) — Japan’s main opposition party has elected nationalist-minded former prime minister Shinzo Abe as its new leader ahead of a looming general election, signalling a shift to the right that could heighten tensions with China and South Korea.

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

Abe has called for revision of Japan’s pacifistic constitution, for a more assertive policy on an island dispute with China and for a rethink on a past government apology to foreign women forced to work as prostitutes by the Japanese military in the 1930s and 40s.

The victory marks a stunning revival in the political fortunes for a politician whose 2006-2007 stint as prime minister was tumultuous and came to a halt when he suddenly quit just after naming a new cabinet and opening parliament.

While Abe presided over a marked improvement in ties with China during his time in power, his nationalist views are likely to raise hackles in Beijing and Seoul.

Ties between Japan and its neighbours have already been strained by disputes over the ownership of island territories and over the legacy of past Japanese invasion and occupation.

In brief comments after his victory, Abe promised to run a “no-side” leadership uniting the LDP’s rival groups.

“We will recover Japan and make a strong Japan,” he said.

Abe won a second round of voting among LDP Diet members, taking 108 of the 197 votes cast on Wednesday. He defeated former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, even though Ishiba is far more popular among the party’s grassroots. In an earlier round of voting, Ishiba had won an impressive 199 of the 300 votes cast by local LDP branches.

The leadership election came amid what is expected to be a more general shift to the right in Japanese politics. The centre-left ruling Democratic party has struggled in office since ousting the long-ruling LDP in 2009 and is now deeply unpopular.

Most analysts expect Diet gridlock to force Yoshihiko Noda, the DPJ leader and prime minister, to call an election early next year that will mark the end of his administration.

Recent territorial disputes are seen as strengthening the hand of Japanese nationalists by fuelling popular concerns about the possible threat posed by an increasingly powerful China.

While the LDP is also broadly unpopular it is seen as likely to become the biggest party in the Diet, and the election is also expected to boost Toru Hashimoto, a regional politician and vocal nationalist.

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