Japan’s main opposition party elected former prime minister Shinzo Abe as its new leader today, giving the 59 year-old a shot at redemption five years after he abruptly resigned.
Abe came from behind to defeat former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba 108-89 in a run-off vote that set the stage for upcoming elections. Polls indicate the Liberal Democratic Party is poised to take back control for the first time in three years when it was ousted by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, following more than 50 years of nearly uninterrupted rule.
Considered a hawkish conservative, Abe rose to power in September 2006, becoming Japan’s youngest post-war prime minister, but he lasted less than a year in office. Plagued by a series of scandals and gaffes, his party suffered a crushing defeat in the upper house elections. Abe abruptly resigned, citing health issues.
“My sudden resignation caused you a lot of trouble,” Abe told his party after winning the vote. “I will take that responsibility to heart, and do my utmost to rise back to power.”
The former prime minister’s return to power is sure to raise concerns across Asia at a time when Japan is engulfed in increasingly tense territorial disputes with China and South Korea. During his first tenure, the nationalist leader riled neighbors by denying so-called “comfort women” were coerced into becoming sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army, during World War II, though he later apologized. Abe has made no apologies for visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals.
He has also suggested replacing a historic 1995 statement that apologized for suffering caused by Japan’s wartime aggressions.
The LDP vote comes as Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda faces increasing pressure from opposition parties to dissolve the powerful Lower House and call a snap election. He is not legally obligated to call an election until next August, and has recently indicated he wants to stay on to oversee the rebuilding effort from last year’s tsunami and nuclear disaster, and help reform the social security system.