The humiliation of Shinzo Abe

The humiliation of Shinzo Abe
Aug 2nd 2007
From The Economist print edition

But without an opposition that is fit to govern, Japan may be stuck with its flawed ruling partyJapan’s politics

JAPAN has now had what by any standards were two extraordinary elections, back-to-back and less than two years apart. They were extraordinary not least because they had opposite outcomes. In 2005 the then prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, called a snap general election, arguing over the head of his own party the case for reform—in particular, the privatisation of the huge postal-savings system, fount of so much political patronage. The result was a landslide victory for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner, New Komeito. Yet on July 29th, in elections for half the seats in the upper house of the Diet (parliament), the LDP suffered at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) its biggest electoral defeat since its founding in 1955. For the very first time it has lost its dominance in the upper house. Despite this humiliation for his party and himself, Shinzo Abe, prime minister since September 2006, amazingly insists that he still has a mandate to stumble on. A spell of political turmoil in Japan seems all but guaranteed.

What changed in two years? That question requires three answers: one to do with the personality of Mr Abe, one with the legacy of Mr Koizumi and the last with Japan’s continuing aversion to painful but necessary reforms.

Mr Abe, by a million miles, is no Koizumi. Everyone knew that Mr Koizumi was a consummate showman and a hard act to follow: a possibly unique Japanese politician with a flair for the common touch. But Mr Abe, Japan’s first prime minister to be born after the second world war, was picked by his party as a worthy because youthful successor. Since then, alas, he has shown himself to be diffident, patrician and out of touch with people’s everyday concerns. On top of this came a seemingly unending series of scandals, gaffes and resignations that have tarnished his cabinet—the latest resignation came on August 1st. Voters appear to have flayed the ruling coalition in the upper house as punishment for Mr Abe’s priorities, incompetence and character (see article).

The second answer is that just as Mr Koizumi was responsible for the landslide victory in 2005, so he had much to do with the LDP’s 2007 defeat. Though by reputation an economic reformer, the biggest change he wrought was on his own party. He declared war on the factions and other networks of patronage through which money and power flowed, and which kept politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen in the same cosy bed. When party apparatchiks chafed, he threw them out or encouraged celebrities to run against them. (Mr Abe did nothing for his popularity by bringing some of the outcasts back.) Mr Koizumi helped smash the vote-getting machine on which the LDP could once depend, especially in the countryside. The LDP’s savage defeat in rural areas on July 29th is proof of his success. Mr Koizumi once said that he wouldn’t mind destroying his party in order to further his reforms. Judging from these election results, he seems to have done a pretty good job.

A third explanation for the voters’ vehemence may bode less well for Japan: that all along they were dazzled more by Mr Koizumi’s performance than by his message of painful change before gain. At least in part, Sunday’s vote was a vote against reform. With growth spreading through the urban parts of Japan, the sense of economic crisis on which Mr Koizumi played is past. Yet wages are stagnant, while the more depopulated parts of Japan are feeling little of the recovery. Indeed, Koizumi-era changes are starting to hurt: in particular, cuts in public-works spending and increases in local taxes as prefectures shoulder more of the fiscal burden. This was fertile ground for the DPJ’s leader, Ichiro Ozawa, who ran his campaign as the farmer’s friend and champion of the regions—just like the old, unreconstructed LDP.

Smash the old idols

Some political scientists see the election as a necessary step towards a long-cherished dream—a system of two parties competing on policy and alternating in power. Dream on. Mr Abe’s refusal to quit may underline the disarray his party is in, but it distracts attention from the corresponding mess in the DPJ. It may succeed in bringing Mr Abe down, perhaps later this year or early next, and an early general election may be called. Yet the closer it comes to real power, the more unprepared the DPJ, a ragbag of conflicting groups, will prove. Mr Ozawa, whose health is not strong, does not relish being prime minister, and his backroom style frustrates modernising colleagues. The DPJ shows no sign of being a party ready to hold power.

So an unpredictable period looms for Japanese politics, with the ship of state under the LDP likely to prove rudderless, accident-prone and even corrupt—and nothing better to be expected from the opposition. So what’s new? One bright thing: Japanese voters, once so respectful of authority, now appear quick to vote the bums out. Not for the first time, one-party rule in Japan seems doomed. Sadly, it is liable to limp on until an opposition that looks fit to govern emerges.

In a democratic system, voters will often use the ballot to provide feedback for the politicians in power. In Japan’s case, the people were clearly angry with Abe and his LDP for their lack of progress in economic reforms, for appointing essentially idiots to run their country’s key areas, and for loosing their pension records. It looks like much of the upper house elections were simply a protest vote against Abe’s misrule seeing that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is relatively ineffectual and composed of a motley crew of former LDP parliamentarians who left for new opportunities, liberals, reformers, and some right-wingers. The only thing the DPJ has going for them is presenting themselves to the Japanese electorate as the anti-LDP because they really have no other clear platform.

It is said that history looks kinder to political figures as time goes on. In the past many people thought Richard Nixon was a monster for Vietnam, promoting HMOs, and Watergate but he was seen as a mixed President for establishing the EPA, enforcing integrated busing, and even promoting equal funding for women and men’s sports. However, his later successor Ronald Reagan was later considered an even worse President for escalating the arms race with the USSR, invading Grenada, cutting taxes for the superrich, and for Iran-Contra.

Then again, Reagan was looked at kindly because he was a very approachable and charming individual who actually listened to others if they presented valid points and for creating a new class of wealthy Americans. Moreover, Reagan is seen as a better man and President than George W. Bush who is currently transforming America into a “Great Satan” that was always proven wrong in the past, for increasing the inequality gap, for missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for allowing 9/11 to happen for his own benefit.

Back to Japan, it seems many people, including myself, considered Koizumi to be a great asshole Prime Minister of Japan for constantly visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in the most sensitive periods in East Asian history. The Japanophiles kept defending him because of his “Anime” hairstyle, for his love of the band X-Japan and for just being Japanese while the academics are able to point out the reforms he was making to domestic politics and the economy. In hindsight, Koizumi’s domestic policies were great for Japan since it greatly undermined the political machine that had promoted complacency and rampant corruption in the LDP and Japanese politics, while his economic reforms actually started the chain reaction that would eventually help Japan claw her way out of the “Lost Decade”.

However, Koizumi’s foreign policy was a complete trainwreck. He divided the Japanese people with his decision to ram through a law that would allow for token Japanese troops to be deployed in Iraq at his American overlord’s request, which was even opposed by the same right-wing Japanese who justify comfort women and deny the Rape of Nanjing. Koizumi fared even worse with his East Asian neighbours by repeatedly visiting the Yasukuni Shrine even when he was asked diplomatically by the Chinese and Koreans to stop in the name of East Asian ties.

Some people say Koizumi decided to cozy up with Bush to get people accustomed to the idea of Japan being a subservient American ally, while the visits to Yasukuni were done to appease right-wing LDP factions that he needed to make key reforms happen. Others would just say Koizumi is just a strange Japanese man and a product of postwar Japan’s confused national identity. Nonetheless, he will be looked upon more kindly for his attempts are reforming Japan’s politics and economy that his successor is seemingly bent on destroying.

Abe is in serious trouble when even Mori Yoshiro is calling for his resignation as head of the Liberal Democratic Party and as Prime Minister. Mori who was the same Prime Minister that continued golfing when a US Navy submarine sank a Japanese fishing boat, the same idiot who referred to China as “Shina” in public and the asshole who called for restoring Emperor worship. Abe is in serious trouble and his stupidity is really bad for business on top of taxpaying Japanese citizens.

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