Saturday, September 02, 2006

Abe Declares, Only Formalities Remain; Test of His Mettles Looms

(This entry reflects a conversation I had yesterday with a politically well-connected friend. I would thank him here for his valuable insights, if I did not believe he would wish to remain anonymous.)

On September 1, Shinzo Abe, the prohibitive favorite to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister of Japan, officially declared his candidacy for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP election and the Diet nomination are as much mere formalities as the appointment by the Emperor. The event dominated the media headlines, and the following day’s morning dailies gave Mr. Abe multi-page coverage, providing a contrast to the announcements with his 2 would-be-rivals. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan must also have been distressed, as the publication on the same day of the first book by DPJ head Ichiro Ozawa in thirteen years --- and reportedly timed to go up against Mr. Abe’s announcement --- barely registered on the political pages.

A four-page policy manifest accompanied Mr. Abe’s announcement. Basically a laundry list of values and ideas, that seems to have something for every major policy issue imaginable, it remains to be seen how he will flesh out most of his proposals. Here are some thoughts on the paradoxical nature of the succession, and what awaits Mr. Abe in the near term.


Groomed to take over by Mr. Koizumi himself and anointed the keeper of the torch of reform, yet Mr. Abe remains curiously distanced from the process and outcome of any of Mr. Koizumi’s main initiatives. This is odd, considering that, under Mr. Koizumi, he served consecutively as Deputy Chief of Cabinet, LDP Secretary-General, Deputy Secretary-General (he took the fall when the LDP lost an Upper House general election), and Chief of Cabinet.

It is true that economics has never been a major part of Abe’s repertoire, at least in the public perception. Seemingly every aspect of structural reform, details, warts and all, will forever be associated with the name of the peripatetic professor and Koizumi surrogate Dr. Heizo Takenaka. Mr. Abe has always had an active interest in public pension and healthcare systems, but has yet to carve out his own legacy there.

Instead, foreign policy is where Mr. Abe made his name, as his staunch advocacy of the abduction victims against a recalcitrant North Korea first propelled him into the spotlight and has since kept him there. It is beginning to fade into distant memory that this was the unintended outcome of a conspicuously unsuccessful attempt to normalize relations with North Korea. So, a failed initiative, a legacy that never was, ended up begetting the heir to the throne.

If there is one point where Mr. Abe‘s and Mr. Koizumi’s world views converge, it is the importance of the Japan-US alliance to Japan’s security and diplomacy. Abe builds on this from his value-oriented perspective by advocating strategic dialogues with countries that share common values, such as .the US, Europe, Australia, and India. Hopefully, China will take this dig in stride. And South Korea, another established East Asia democracy, will not take offence at its relegation to the Japanese catch-all “such as”. In any case, the US should have a somewhat different perspective and wish list re the strategic alliance, as well as the dialogues, as it struggles to deal with the destabilizing forces that its expanded pseudo-war on terror has unleashed in the Middle East and beyond. And the US’s half-hearted help in Mr. Koizumi’s ill-fated quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security council will be even less useful in the last years of the Bush administration.

Mr. Abe seems to be making headway with China and South Korea. Here again, Mr. Abe and Mr. Koizumi exhibit a curious contrast. It is Mr. Abe, who seems to be making progress, that has the decidedly conservative outlook, while Mr. Koizumi, our neighbors’ No. 1 bête noir, is firmly in the traditionally mainstream Japanese (if not necessarily LDP), apologetic school of history. Hopefully, his demonstrated tact in defusing the Yasukuni issue will serve him well when he deals with the East China Sea gas fields conundrum.

The first test of Mr. Abe’s mettle, however, will be domestic. On October 22, likely less than a month after Mr. Abe becomes prime minister, two Lower House by-elections will be held in Osaka and Kanagawa prefectures, respectively. The media will play up this up as a kind of mini-referendum on the new administration. If the elections look close, Mr. Abe will face the excruciating decision of whether or not to call on the services of the ever-popular Mr. Koizumi. Mr. Koizumi would be happy to oblige, but Mr. Abe will no longer be taken seriously if the electorate comes to look down on him as a Mini-Me.

Those elections bear watching.



91日に、小泉首相の公認候補として圧倒的優位を誇っている安倍晋増資が、自民党総裁選挙に立候補することを正式に宣言しました。同総裁選、そして国会での首班指名は、天皇陛下による任命と同様に、今や単なる形式の問題になっております。しかし、発表は、メディアのトップを占め、翌日の朝刊は、何ページも使って安倍氏を取り上げました。これは、二人の党内ライバルのときと比べて違うところです。第一野党の民主党もまた、落胆していることでしょう。同じ1日に、民主党党首の小沢一郎が13年ぶりに発表した新著は --- それは、安倍氏の立候補発表に対抗してタイミングを決めたように報道されています --- かろうじて政治面に掲載される程度に留まったのです。







安倍氏は、対中、対韓関係では、前進しつつあるように見えます。ここでもまた、安倍氏と小泉氏とは、奇妙なコントラストを発揮しています。つまり、はっきりと保守的な考え方を採っている安倍氏の方が前進し、隣国の悪玉ナンバー・ワンである小泉氏が戦後日本の主流である --- 自民党内は違うかもしれませんが --- 謝罪歴史学派ともいうべきものにしっかりと所属しているのです。安倍氏が靖国問題で発揮した配慮ぶりが、東シナ海の天然ガス開発という難問を処理する上で役立つことを願うばかりです。



No comments: