BEIJING -- Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected as head of the Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday, a move that could pave the way for the hawkish politician to return as the nation's leader if elections are called this fall.
Should he return to office, Abe could further test Japan's relations with China and South Korea, which recently have been strained over territorial disputes and other matters.
A staunch nationalist, Abe has called for Japan to take a firm line with its neighbors and tighten its alliance with the United States. He has also pushed to revise the nation's pacifist constitution.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is facing dismal public poll numbers and increasing opposition within parliament. Although he is not required to call elections until next summer, he has promised to do so "soon."
Noda has scored some political victories, such as winning support from opposition parties for a tax hike to fund social security costs in the rapidly aging nation. But he has faltered on other fronts as his party has been beset by infighting.
Noda, the third DPJ prime minister in three years, has faced criticism over the economy and what's widely perceived as a wishy-washy stance on a government plan to phase out nuclear power. In recent weeks, he has been forced to deal with a dispute with China over some islands, which threatens to seriously damage trade between the world's No. 2 and No. 3 economies.
Ian Neary, a professor of Japanese politics at the University of Oxford, said he believed an election was likely by November. He noted that the Noda administration is facing a ticking clock to pass a measure to authorize the sale of government bonds, without which it will run out of funds by year's end, and the prime minister will need the cooperation of other political parties to push the measure through.
Abe, 58, comes from a family of politicians and succeeded the popular Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister in September 2006, but served barely a year in office.
As a lawmaker, he had developed a following in part by championing the cause of a dozen Japanese abducted by North Korea in the 1970s. He led efforts to revise school textbooks in a way that critics say presented a whitewashed version of Japan's wartime history. Halfway into his term, he caused a furor in Asia and the United States by saying there was no proof that Japan's military had coerced women into sex slavery during World War II.
Still, Neary said Abe was able to improve relations with China, which had taken a sharp downward turn under Koizumi.
"I've heard people suggest that it might be easier for Japan to resolve its current problems with China with Abe," Neary said. "Though he has this tough reputation, some think that would command more respect from the Chinese and make negotiations easier."
Abe stepped down in 2007 after the Japanese public and members of his own party began to turn on him following a number of money-related scandals and gaffes that prompted a number of his ministers to resign. He was also criticized as being out of touch with ordinary citizens' economic worries.
The LDP ruled Japan nearly uninterrupted from 1955 until its defeat in 2009 at the hands of Noda's party. Duncan McCargo, a professor at the University of Leeds' School of Politics and International Studies who has written about Japan, called Abe a rather uninspiring choice to return as LDP leader, adding that his selection seemed to be more about internal party politics than picking someone voters could get enthused about.
"Certain elements of the public may find his anti-China rhetoric appealing, but that's not the main problem Japan is facing now," McCargo said. "With Abe, you are hardly going to see a speedy resolution of what are really silly tempests over these little islands and such. ... But if it continues like this, it could be a disaster economically, and he's the kind of guy who might take a risk with that."
-- Julie Makinen
Photo: New Liberal Democratic Party head Shinzo Abe attends a news conference Wednesday after the party's leadership election at its headquarters in Tokyo. Credit: Kazuhiro Nobi / AFP/Getty Images