Monday, July 30, 2007

Thoughts on the LDP Take on the Upper House Election Results Plus Some Odds And Ends

The prime minister stays on but cabinet heads roll, and the secretary-general falls on his sword. So, apparently, the LDP leadership has decided. They can make its stick too - for the time being - since the LDP has 306 seats out of 480 in the all-important Lower House, and there's no one else in the LDP poised to take over.

Prime Minister Abe and the LDP leadership claim that the electorate may have blamed the LDP for its political scandals and the public pension mess, but it did not repudiate his policies. Perhaps. But the public did not exactly endorse his emphasis on constitutional amendment and patriotism in education as priority issues. In fact, if you follow his trajectory since he first came to notice as a sub-cabinet member of the Koizumi administration, you will notice the following:

Mr. Abe made his name as an administration hardliner on the abductees issue. But the only reason the abductees became a top issue was because Prime Minister Koizumi decided to make it one. And the only occasions on which the Japanese government made any headway were when Prime Minister Koizumi twice flew to Pyongyang and essentially bribed the North Korean regime. Mr. Abe has delivered little on the abductees.

Mr. Abe (and the LDP) can take a breather only because the LDP has a comfortable Lower House majority on its own even without the help of the New Komeito. But the majority exists only because Mr. Koizumi bet the house in 2005 by dissolving the Lower House over Post Office privatization and won a landslide victory in the general election. And it was only with visible reluctance that Mr. Abe went along with the reform legislation. Accordingly, after he became prime minister, he made it a top political priority to allow back in the Lower House rebels who had managed to maintain their seats in the general election. But this led to his first serious setback in public opinion polls, from which he never managed to recover.

Another political decision has brought him nothing but grief as well. He chose his cabinet members mainly on the basis of their role in corralling support for the LDP presidency election and their personal relationships with him, giving short shrift to the wishes of party elders and faction leaders. But many of his ministers either became ensnared in a continuous stream of political financing scandals or committed one verbal gaffe after another. And at least one replacement for the failures kept both problems in the public eye, late into the electoral campaign. Although Mr. Abe was not personally implicated in the political financing scandals, they did touch him personally, as their frequency and his hands-off-the-tiller responses gave him an air of powerlessness.

(It is notable that Mr. Koizumi's most serious political troubles over a cabinet appointee's behavior came when he allowed political considerations to overrule practical concerns. Makiko Tanaka, the charismatic but undisciplined daughter of ex-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, bungled her way through her brief tenure as foreign minister and caused a major setback for Mr. Koizumi in public opinion polls. She had been given her pick of cabinet appointments because her very public campaigning was directly responsible for pushing him over the top against the heavily favored ex-Prime Minister Hashimoto.)

However, the prime minister has not been totally without success in raising his esteem with the public. Although Mr. Abe was clearly Mr. Koizumi's handpicked successor, he has so far repudiated at least one part of his predecessor's legacy. He has not visited the Yasukuni Shrine since he became prime minister, even though his views on pre-1945 issues are clearly to the right of Mr. Koizumi's, This was the unstated quo pro quo for China's acceptance of his 2006 September visit, right after the installment of his cabinet. This raised his public approval to a historical high. It is also important to note that the only notable uptick in his popularity came when the Chinese prime minister (but not the more important head of state) paid a return visit in April.

Mr. Abe is in many ways the anti-Koizumi, yet he owed the prime minister's chair to his predecessor, and will continue to do so. The further, double irony is that where he has deviated from his legacy, he has faltered miserably, except where he has deviated from his own personal beliefs.

I can now tell you now that my favorite Japan analyst was off by just one seat on LDP returns.

The DPJ, JCP, DSP, and the New Party Japan have between them 122 seats out of 242. That's a simple majority. Not that the Communist Party will march in lockstep with the other opposition parties, and the other opposition parties do not exactly harbor unconditional love for the DPJ. But even if the ruling coalition brings in the People's Party and all the unaligned - an impossibility since, for one, some of the newly-elected unaligned ran with the official support of multiple opposition parties against LDP candidates – they will still have only 120 votes in the Upper House. The possibility that the ruling coalition can cobble together a working majority in the Upper House by bringing in the unaligned, micro-parties, and defectors is not there in the foreseeable future.

The New Komeito, the junior coalition partner, also took a beating, as it won only nine, a net loss of three. They did particularly badly in the three-seat districts, where the DPJ managed to take two seats in three of the four three-seat districts that the New Komeito contested. The third seat in all cases went to the LDP, leaving the New Komeito in the cold. This will be a persistent problem for the narrow-based New Komeito, if the voters continue to lock in on the two major parties in future elections. In this respect, it is notable that the JCP and DSP, the perennial opposition parties also suffered losses.

The Yomiuri estimates the proportion of the number of actual votes to the number of eligible voters at 58.64%, a modest rise from 56.57% in 2004. Public attention was significantly higher this time around according to polls, but it did not materialize as actual turnout. (Imagine if there had not been the growing awareness of the 2003 voting reform, which has made it much easier for voters to vote before the actual election day.) The election, it appears, was not so much won by the DPJ as lost by the LDP.

One Internet poll had Mr. Koizumi as the favored candidate to succeed Mr. Abe. Mr. Abe himself ran a close second.

I know the Ichiro Ozawa is not popular in many quarters and has potentially serious health problems (he did not show up in post-election celebrations due to exhaustion), but you can't argue with success.

Tomorrow, the US House of Representatives vote on the comfort women issue. Perhaps then we'll see how long the post-election buzz lasts in the foreign media.


Anonymous said...

Jun - just a thought that given the lack of obvious charismatic alternatives in the mainstream LDP, what about Ms Tanaka making a bold comeback? Or is she utterly tainted? When a party is on its knees is the time for those previously spurned to make their messanaic reappearances.

Jun Okumura said...

Dear Anonymous:

Makiko Tanaka is one of the most charismatic but least disciplined politicians in post-WW II Japan. She cannot run a government or any part of it, yet will not allow anyone to do it for her. She did not have many allies even when she was at the peak of her popularity as a newly installed foreign minister; she has few now, if any, now that she's no longer even in the LDP. It's a shame (blessing?) that her father, the controversial political juggernaut and once prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, apparently never gave her a proper political or social education.

My favorite Japan analyst has floated the name of Kaoru Yosano, or someone like him. Now Mr. Yosano is one of the nicest and most considerate people in Japanese politics. He is policy-wise to a wonkish fault. He also has an excellent track record as a coordinator and conciliator who gets things done. Unfortunately, he has the charisma of a pair of Japanese turnips, and the campaigning skills to match. Imagine a highly functional Charlie Brown.

I guess the LDP needs someone who brings together the best of Ms. Tanaka and Mr. Yosano. Of course if they had someone like that, they would not be where they are, would they?

Garrett said...

Mr. Okumura, well said as always. I've long been scratching my head over why exactly Abe got so much credit for the abduction issue, but figured I'd missed something. I'm glad to see my skepticism reinforced by the better-informed.

I'm also curious to see your take on H.R. 121. I'm thinking a mountain has been made of a mole hill.

As for Yosano, that'd be great, but it would never happen. Since when has a balance between charisma and ability been the issue? As I see it, it's always been about a balance between charisma and seniority.

Bryce said...

So who is your favourite commentator on Japanese politics, Jun?

Koizumi certainly wanted to make the abductees a top issue - he did bring them back, after all. But it was Abe who jumped on the hardline bandwagon once the press and the public decided that the abductees should stay, which, basic human rights notwithstanding, was not originally part of the deal with the NK regime. I think Koizumi could have been persuaded to take a softer line on the issue to Japan's advantage. Letting the abductees stay in Japan was the right decision but subsequent browbeating over, for example, Megumi Yokota's remains isn't improving Japan's position at all.

Jun Okumura said...

Garret, Bryce: Thanks for the comments and questions.

I'm also bemused at the way certain people receive credit for essentially being there and somehow being appropriate to the situation. Case in point: Rudy Giuliani. (President Bush did go to war against the Taliban. Given the circumstances, any president would surely have done the same, but he was the one who was there to make the decision.) Not that Mr. Abe (or Mr. Giuliani for that matter) has been insincere on his defining issue. In fact, generally speaking, his word (as is Mr. Giuliani's) is good compared to the run-of-the-mill politician. And his instincts on the abductees issue were in synch with the national mood, so it was more the circumstances sweeping him along, rather than him taking advantage of the situation. As for Megumi's remains, I remember writing somewhere that the Asahi was the only member of the JMSM (online at least) that took up the Nature article that cast doubt on the DNA findings.

In any case, if North Korea is truly forthcoming during the next stage of the nuclear program negotiations - a very unlikely turn of events to be sure - Mr. Abe will be in a bind.

I have nothing to add to the debate over H.R.121 itself, but I do have something to say about the well-meaning Japan hands who told Japan to let it go, it was only a House resolution. I'll post it as soon as I can.

Mr. Koizumi had some seniority, but not nearly as much as the main faction leaders, when he won, and Mr. Abe in turn had much less than Mr. Koizumi. Perhaps, with all the problems that the Abe administration has been having, there will be a greater emphasis on proven ability - seniority with a track record.

I don't read much commentary on Japan, Bryce, because there's just not enough time to read all the other things I want to read. Let me know when you come across anything by Gerry Curtis though. And I do wish I had more time to follow the Japan blogs. As for regular commentary, it's a shame that The Oriental Economist is by subscription only, because I find the political and economic analysis there thorough and convincing, whenever I have a chance to take a look at it. And on a personal note, there's the on-and-off dialogue with my favorite Japan analyst. It's too bad that he has a day job that mainly calls on his other skills.

A general statement on Japan hands (or less): When they wander beyond their specific area of expertise, too many often wind up repeating the conventional wisdom or, worse, making a fool of themselves. But maybe that's just my envy showing.

Garrett said...

Jun, I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on HR 121 now that you've hinted that you think either that it is more important than I and others were giving it credit for or at least that Japan should not ignore it, which is precisely what I think would be in Japan's best interests, at least until the current government does a better job with PR.

Jun Okumura said...

Sorry, Garret. I have a draft on my HD, but I'm not satisfied with it, and I'm having enough problems trying to finish a post around the prospects for the extension of the counter-terrorism act. In the time being, to put it in a nutshell, my point is that though it may have been true that Japanese objections to the resolution were counterproductive (I have some reservations about that, but anyway), so was the resolution if its intent was to influence Japanese public opinion. I noticed at least a few people pushing the one argument without making the other. I thought that was wrong. There are many things that I'd like to wrap around core that I want to work through before I put anything up. But that was the thought that started me on it, so I'll leave you with that for the time being.