Keeping his head just above water
Aug 2nd 2007 | TOKYO
From The Economist print edition
Humiliation for the LDP, but Shinzo Abe pretends it's a mandate
FOR a land with more than its share of seismic activity, the outcome on July 29th of elections for half the seats in the upper house of the Diet (parliament) was a Big One. It was, by some measures, the worst electoral drubbing for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since its long and almost unbroken reign began in 1955.
In cities and in the rural districts that were once the LDP's unassailable stronghold, party grandees tumbled, including the party's number two in the upper house. Of the 29 rural single-seat districts that were contested, the party's bag fell from 23 to six; overall the LDP suffered a net loss of 27 seats (see chart). The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) doubled its share of seats. As a result the LDP for the first time in its history is no longer the biggest party in the upper house. Even with its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, it falls embarrassingly short of a majority.
Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, sits in the lower house, where the ruling coalition still commands a big majority. But the vote was a damning judgment on him personally. His popularity began on a high last autumn, thanks to fairly youthful looks and a swift attempt to improve troubled ties with China and South Korea. His ratings have since then slid with scarcely a pause and still have found no floor.
The vote was a rejection of Mr Abe's priorities, which emphasise ideological issues of nationhood, such as instilling patriotic education, rewriting the pacifist constitution and expanding the role of the Japanese armed forces. Many Japanese are not opposed to such measures, but they rate them far below pocketbook concerns: a shortage of decent jobs for the young; stagnant wages; rising health-care costs; uncertain pensions; and swathes of the depopulated countryside missing out on the economic recovery that has taken hold in Tokyo and other big cities. Mr Abe's blunder, contend Richard Katz and Peter Ennis from the Oriental Economist, a newsletter, was to think that the recovery would take care of these concerns by itself.
The vote was also a rejection of Mr Abe's competence—a rather too easy target, perhaps. Instead of filling his cabinet either with eager young reformers or with more practised masters in the LDP's dark arts of getting things done, his generally ineffectual appointments have been responsible for a string of scandals and verbal blunders. One farm minister killed himself before the scale of his corruption became public. His successor, Norihiko Akagi, became the latest in a series of ministerial departures when he resigned on August 1st under suspicion of fiddling political expenses. Mr Akagi had appeared on the campaign trail with his face mysteriously covered in plasters. It became a metaphor for Mr Abe's entire administration.
Above all, voters rejected Mr Abe's character—stiff (his fun-loving wife promises he is different in private) and out of touch. Admittedly, he had to follow Junichiro Koizumi, who charmed the country for five years, delivering a landslide lower-house victory for the LDP in 2005, before dancing off the stage a year ago. And this is why this summer's scandal over the 50m missing pension records dealt Mr Abe such a blow. Mr Koizumi the iconoclast would have boosted his standing by attacking both the bureaucrats and the politicians who protected them. Mr Abe, by contrast, first hushed up the pension agency's ineptitude and then seemed not to understand why it mattered.
The pensions fiasco was Mr Abe's Hurricane Katrina, says Gerald Curtis of New York's Columbia University. The missing records were not his fault and will no doubt be cleared up. But the episode said a lot about the man.
In the past, prime ministers have resigned for lesser defeats. Mr Abe, bewilderingly, refuses to go. Indeed, he claimed this week that voters understood that his policies were not wrong. It is merely “the people's wish to have us reflect on the things we should reflect on and to refresh our minds.” So that's all right then.
That Mr Abe can even think of carrying on gives an idea of the confusion in his party. Even his political godfather, Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister, seemed at the weekend to give up on Mr Abe. But if he will not jump, nobody can bring himself to push him—at least, not yet. It is not clear who would want his job just now.
In the coming weeks Mr Abe will be preoccupied with a cabinet reshuffle, even bringing in heavyweights from enemy factions if they can be persuaded. Koichi Kato, who himself made a tilt in 2000 against an ineffective leadership, says that party unity will prevail for as long as everybody thinks they have a shot at high office, but that disappointment will set in as soon as a reshuffle is announced. Meanwhile, a replacement will have to be found for Hidenao Nakagawa, who resigned this week as the LDP's secretary-general. Colleagues say the best candidate is Taro Aso, the foreign minister. But he fancies his chances of succeeding Mr Abe, and could not easily launch his bid from that position.
So Mr Abe stumbles on for now, and colleagues even talk of co-operation with the DPJ. That sounds fanciful. Akira Nagatsuma, a DPJ politician who achieved fame this year for uncovering the pensions fiasco, says that his party's aim is to do all it can to bring down the government and force an early general election (technically none is due until 2009). Even cleaning up the mess at the pensions agency, says Mr Nagatsuma, will have to wait.
The first real test comes in the autumn with the renewal of emergency measures that allow Japanese oil tankers in the Indian Ocean to resupply the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. The DPJ's leader, Ichiro Ozawa, vows to block the measures in the upper house—he believes that any projection of Japanese military power must be authorised by the United Nations. Japan's withdrawal would signal the end to its commitment to the “war on terror”, and strain its security relationship with the United States. The administration of George Bush is mildly alarmed. This week the American ambassador, Thomas Schieffer, sheepishly admitted that the opposition leader of America's most important Asian ally refuses to meet him.
The government still has the ability to overturn any veto in the upper house with its two-thirds majority in the lower one. But it thinks it cannot do this too often without angering a public with notions about fair play. All the while, the DPJ can make things worse by sitting on legislation in the upper house. Such frustrations make it more likely that Mr Abe will be forced to go, perhaps by the end of this year or more probably in the first half of 2008. Once a new LDP leader was found, a general election would then be called. If at any time before then New Komeito gambled on leaving the coalition, the government would fall immediately.
That is when the DPJ's real challenge will begin. The party is riven by more factional bickering than is the LDP. And Mr Ozawa has little desire to be prime minister. Even as the election results were coming in, he was nowhere to be seen—ill health was said to be the reason, but arrogance may have come into it.
A period of political uncertainty looms, then, and possibly new leaders for Japan's two biggest parties. How much it matters is another question. The prospects for farm liberalisation in the near run have gone from slight to nil. New bilateral free-trade negotiations will be pulled from the table. A debate about a hike in the consumption tax as a way to tackle the budget deficit will also be postponed, as, perhaps, will be an expected interest-rate rise by the Bank of Japan. On the other hand, growth is likely to chug along at about 2% a year or so, providing jobs and record profits at companies, as well as paying higher revenues into the exchequer. Politicians may be amazed to find that things can carry along without them.
Winds of change decimated LDP forest
A strong gust of wind ran roughshod over the trees of the Liberal Democratic Party's forest, making for a sorry sight. Reverberating among the desolation are resentful mutterings against the prime minister and his ministers.
The following are some sound bites from the month of July, when the people delivered a tremendously powerful "vote."
Sanzo Hosaka, an LDP candidate from Tokyo sought his third term in the Upper House in vain, ending sixth place in the polls and losing his seat. He said, "There was a furious storm against us: the pension records problem, the question of money and politics, repeated gaffes by ministers. Amidst all of that, I had to devote most of my speeches to making apologies and explaining the latest situation." His chagrin over not having been able to make a stand about central issues seeps through.
The wind was also blowing against the LDP in the rural areas. In Yamagata Prefecture, an LDP newcomer lost soundly. A Lower House lawmaker helping the newcomer's campaign was incessantly railed against by their own supporters on the campaign trail. "What about that minister's gaffe, eh?" "After (agricultural minister Toshikatsu) Matsuoka, comes the man with the bandages. Abe really needs to learn, I tell you."
Other candidates who lost were also crying for help. "Pensions alone we could handle, but so many things coming out of the woodwork" (Aomori). "We kicked an own goal four times" (Chiba). One of the leading forces dragging LDP candidates down was farm minister Norihiko Akagi, and this is what he had to say the day after the election. ".... (silence) ... ." He didn't utter a word when he arrived at the ministry.
Despite the devastating loss, the prime minister announced he will stay in office. The LDP faction bosses gave their immediate consent. Novelist Takashi Tsujii laments this. "They are just calculating how to push in as many of their underlings into the Cabinet as possible. They don't care a jot about the LDP as a whole, never mind thinking about the future of the country."
The tailwind was behind Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan). Takashi Yamamoto, who won the final place in the proportional-representation constituency, is battling progressive cancer.
"I feel as if the heavens are telling me, 'We've set the stage for you.' Perhaps I might not last out the full six years, but I want to do as much work as I can as long as I'm alive."
His mission is to be kind to society's most vulnerable people.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 1(IHT/Asahi: August 2,2007)