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.