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Shinzo Abe's political party sees a big win in Japan's election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Japanese voters will keep the government they have. In national elections, they gave victory to the Liberal Democratic Party and its allies. That is the party of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated on Friday. So what does this result mean for the world's third largest economy and a vital U.S. ally? Sheila Smith joins us next, a senior fellow for Asia Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program.

SHEILA SMITH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Was this election result any different than what you would have expected before the assassination?

SMITH: No, Steve. In fact, it was pretty much what everybody was looking for. The LDP, the ruling party, has a fairly strong structural advantage. They came out with a few seats ahead of where they were last time. So about - they picked up about eight seats. So they came out with about 63 of the upper house seats that were up for grabs. So with their coalition partner, then about 60% of the seats went to the ruling coalition.

INSKEEP: Sixty percent.

SMITH: That's right.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should just be clear. This means they can do anything they want. Is that right?

SMITH: Well, this is the upper house, and this is important for your listeners. This is not an election that would have changed the government. But it certainly gives the prime minister, Prime Minister Kishida, a really good bounce, and it puts him in a very good position to move forward with his policy goals.

INSKEEP: Which would be what?

SMITH: Well, you know, he came out after the election, of course, with the shock of the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe. It's a very sort of muted mood - you know, not a celebratory mood at all within the party. But he came out very clearly and said, the economy, the economy, the economy is first in my priorities. So the Japanese people, like people everywhere, are looking at inflation. They're looking at the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the global economy and its unpredictable impact on food and energy prices. And, of course, they're looking at the coronavirus still. So he's going to be very laserlike focused on the economy. But beyond that, there's a fairly significant series of policy initiatives coming down the pike in the fall on security policy. So Japan will redo its national security strategy. It'll have a new ten-year defense plan. And as you may know, the prime minister has basically said that he's going to raise defense spending - something that Prime Minister Abe also supported.

INSKEEP: And Prime Minister Abe wanted to change the constitution to remove some limits on Japanese forces. And I just want to explain for people why this matters to Americans. We have a vital U.S. ally. There are U.S. bases there. The U.S. is increasingly confronting China, next door to Japan. How does all of that affect Japan?

SMITH: So I think the real push here, again, started, as you noted, by prime minister - former Prime Minister Abe and continued by current Prime Minister Kishida is to really invest more in military capabilities by the Japanese forces themselves, you know, to make Japan's self-defense force a little bit more robust, let's say. There is also an idea on the table that Japan - the time has come for Japan perhaps to develop counter strike capability, which means conventional forces, not nuclear, but conventional forces that might allow them to reach out and touch neighbors in order to deter, as you said, China and also North Korea. So there are some pretty big defense items on the agenda later this year.

INSKEEP: Is this what Americans want Japan to be doing?

SMITH: I think so. I think, you know, very clearly the United States has wanted Japan to keep pace with the changing environment. North Korea has missile capabilities - have put Japan, you know, under the sights of Pyongyang, if they chose. But also, China's power across the region has upset many in the region - not only Japan, but others as well. So maritime security is a focal point for the United States and Japan and Australia and India. So there's a lot on the docket here in Northeast Asia specifically, but also across the Indo-Pacific.

INSKEEP: Can I ask one broad question before I let you go? We're at this moment where people are worried about democracy in the United States. We have a U.S. ally that is confronting China - or helping to confront China in some way. They just had an election, but also just had an assassination. Broadly speaking, is democracy working in Japan?

SMITH: Japan is one of the world's most stable democracies, almost too stable for some people's taste. The Liberal Democratic Party has been in power for decades, either in majority or in coalition. But this use of political violence in the eve of a major election has many people shaken up. I don't think, though, the motives of the person that's been arrested suggests that there's a political motive here. There seems to be personal grievance. So, I think, for Japan, I don't anticipate that we're seeing a very disruptive moment in Japanese democracy - but something certainly to pay attention to when one of the world's most preeminent democracies and preeminent economies has an assassination. It bears witness that we should be paying attention to the domestic politics across the board.

INSKEEP: Sheila Smith, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

SMITH: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Sheila Smith is a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.