Japan Votes After Shinzo Abe’s Death

Shinzo Abe speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on February 22, 2013. (Photo courtesy of CSIS)

Japanese voters went to the polls on Sunday in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Heightened security measures were in place as party leaders avoided mixing with crowds and delivered messages stressing the importance of democracy and free speech during campaigning the day before.

The exit polls for the election for the parliament’s upper house showed Abe’s governing party certain to win a major victory. This is possibly due to the wave of sympathy votes in a country that is still reeling from the shock of Friday’s brazen shooting.

On Sunday, the police in western Japan sent the man who is accused of assassinating Abe to a local prosecutor’s office for further investigation. A top regional police official acknowledged that there may have been security lapses that allowed the attacker to get so close and shoot the former Japanese leader.

The Liberal Democratic Party is projected to win 125 out of the 245 seats in the upper house, which would give them a majority. This is good news for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who will be able to stay in power until 2025.

After Abe’s assassination, Sunday’s election became more significant, with all political leaders emphasizing the importance of free speech and their commitment to continue fighting against violence against democracy.

Security was increased and party leaders avoided close physical contact with the public on the last day of campaigning.

LDP party officials prepared for vote counting inside, as mourners visited the LDP headquarters to lay flowers and pray for Abe.

“We absolutely refuse to let violence shut out free speech,” Kishida said in his final rally in the northern city of Niigata on Saturday. “We must demonstrate that our democracy and election will not back down on violence.”

On Friday, Abe was shot in Nara and died of blood loss. A former member of Japan’s navy was arrested at the scene and a homemade gun was confiscated. Several other guns were later found at his apartment.

Tetsuya Yamagami, the suspect, told investigators that he attacked Shinzo Abe because of a rumor that Abe was connected to an organization that Yamagami resented. Yamagami’s mother was reportedly obsessed with a religious group that bankrupted a family business, and Yamagami developed hatred toward that group as a result. Some media reports have identified the group as the Unification Church.

Abe’s body was transported in a black hearse back to his home in Shibuya, Tokyo, where his wife Akie and many mourners, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and top party officials, paid their respects. His wake and funeral are scheduled to take place in the coming days.

The Nara prefectural police chief says that the assassination of Abe was the biggest regret of his 27-year career. He admits that there were security problems and says that he will take measures to improve security procedures.

Despite having a population of 125 million, Japan had only 21 gun-related criminal cases in 2020. However, some recent attacks have involved the use of consumer items such as gasoline, suggesting increased risks for ordinary people to be embroiled in mass attacks.

Even after stepping down in 2020 as prime minister, Abe was still hugely influential in the party and headed its largest faction. His absence could change the party’s power balance.

This might be the time where the LDP changes its policies on gender equality, same-sex marriages, and other topics that Abe refused to budge on, said Mitsuru Fukuda, a crisis management professor at Nihon University.

It is unlikely that Japan’s current diplomatic and security stance will change, as Abe has already made fundamental changes. His ultra-nationalist views and pragmatic policies have made him a divisive figure, especially in Korea and China.

Abe stepped down two years ago due to a recurrent illness. He said it was a hard decision because he wanted to finish many of the things he had promised his voters.

Abe was raised to become the next Prime Minister, just like his grandfather. His speeches often talked about how he wanted to make Japan a more “normal” place, with a better military that was allied with the United States.

He was 52 when he became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, but his overly nationalistic first stint ended abruptly a year later because of his health, which led to annual leadership changes for the next six years.

He returned to office in 2012, vowing to improve the nation’s economy with his own plan that includes elements like fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms. He won six national elections and built a strong hold on power.

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