Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Mr. Abe Is a Nice Person, and for That, He Is in Trouble.

Shinzo Abe is a nice man by all accounts. He is nice to his wife, he is nice to his mother, he is nice, well, he tries to do the right thing for his dog, if this British journalist is to be believed. And he must be nice to his colleagues as well, because it is difficult find anyone who will own up to hating him, though for even some LDO politicians, he is a politician whose beliefs are at least as much odds as less-liked … but I digress.

On the other hand, he is also known as a pragmatic politician, whose navigation skills are proven by his ability to hang with and become the protégé of Junichiro Koizumi, whose softy approach to North Korea and persistence on Post Office privatization, the two dfining issues of his regime, were diametrically at odds with Abe's own belief.: The clumsy attempt at rapprochement with North Korea and the Post Office counter-putsch must have been painful for Mr. Abe to bear. (And though they both support Yasukuni, they are otherwise at opposite ends on that issue, as (I think) I argue here.)

But the North Korea nuclear tests, as well as the desire on the part of his prospective South Korean and Chinese counterparts rendered the first question moot. And with that $64,000 question taken care of, Mr. Abe in all his sincerity decided to lay rest to the second. That the decision was precipitated by the LDP's need to enlist the renegade troops in the mathematically daunting battle in next year's Upper House elections in no way belies Mr. Abe's good intentions. It was as much a personal decision as a political one.

That sincerity, if properly expressed and communicated through the JMSM, should have limited whatever damage the turnaround would cause. His judgment may have benn called to task, but that Abe sure is a good man at heart, and a man of his convictions to boot, the story could have gone. And see how far that story managed to sustain George Bush, among others.

But it was not meant to be. Throughout the process, Mr. Abe (or his handlers, it does not matter which) contrived to keep him out of the spotlight as much as possible. Then, as the end game arrived, with the polls slipping, the LDP powers that be realized their mistake, and tried to arrange a TV interview or two for Mr. Abe. But for once, the infamous kisha club system worked against the establishment, and demanded a collective press conference. Mr. Abe (or his handlers, it matters not which) demurred, and the media (and Mr., Abe) ended up with the regular once(?)-daily burasagari (i.e. hanging-on to the ambling interviewee) for the unexceptional platitudes that invariably flow in these occasions. Pleasing no one, I'm sure.

The short-term damage is that Mr. Abe has been seen as going back on the Koizumi reform. But if you consider the water that has flowed under the bridge since the Japanese 9.11 (2005), as well as the humiliation that the renegades were forced to undergo, it is absurd to argue that this was the only way the story could have played out, or that, once the narrative had been laid, there had been no way to control the damage through some deft footwork on the part of the honeymooning prime minister. Yet the real damage will play itself out in the long run (one political year); the media has smelled the fear; it will attack relentlessly the political celebrity that refused to feed the beast. If you don't come to us, then we will go to you.

Mr. Abe must now show the media that he is up to it. He has much ground to make up. He showed his weakness (or so the media believes, it does not matter which), an aversion to the ball come crunch time; now, he must prove that it was merely an illusion, an aberration at worst. Otherwise, his regime is likely to be short-lived. The media will portray the same loss in next year's election not as a simple exercise in arithmetic, but as a substantive LDP setback. And many LDP knives will be unsheathed, if hidden, to bring down Caesar's heir.

It is now an uphill battle. But Mr. Abe cannot avoid it. And he has no one to blame but himself. That comes with the perks.

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