Monday, September 12, 2005

Japan's Election Blow-Out

At times the general election in Japan these past couple weeks seemed more like a ninja action movie than an election. The plot was populated with “assassins,” ex-cons, rebels and a real life terminator, who ended up blowing away rebels and scores of opposition politicians in an exciting climax.

Almost every commentator, including this one, had described Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision to call a snap election as a gamble, indeed, almost a reckless gamble, one that might crack up his party. But when the votes were counted, it was Koizumi who was holding all of the chips.

On Sunday the Liberal-Democratic Party had won 296 seats. It is probably will go over 300 when the handful of successful but chastened rebels, who ran as independents or under tiny party banners, are allowed to return to the fold. It was the Japan’s second largest electoral blowout since World War II.

A little background. The Koizumi government had tabled a plan to privatize the postal system, including its savings and insurance subsidiaries that have assets of about $3 trillion. The bills narrowly passed the House of Representatives in early August but were defeated in the House of Councillors, Japan’s Senate.

In both cases a significant number of Dietmen from Koizumi’s own party broke party discipline to vote against the government. Koizumi decided to dissolve the House of Representatives (the upper house has fixed terms and can’t be dissolved), and call an election on this one issue and to run new candidates against the rebels.

Many leaders pleaded with Koizumi not to do it. Commentators thought it folly to run with a divided party against an opposition emboldened by recent electoral successes The voters were nervous about relations with China roiled by the PM’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine; the public was not especially engaged with his big issue, postal reform.

Any kind of “consensus” politics went by the board. He cut off arguments from other party members with a short, “I’m the prime minister; I make the decisions.” As president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), he drummed rebel lawmakers out of the national party (Some local chapters stayed loyal to their representative).

In absolute terms, Koizumi’s strategy of running candidates who were strangers to their new districts had only fair success. Eighteen of the 33 rebels who ran for office were re-elected. Koizumi’s arch foe Shizuka Kamei crushed his high-profile would-be terminator, the Internet mogul Takafumi Horie, in Hiroshima.

But in the larger sense it was a masterstroke. The national press focused on the selection of rival candidates, whom they dubbed “the assassins,” almost to the total exclusion of any other issue. By the time the press tired of this issue, the two-week official campaign period was over and the election was on them.

More grist for drama was added by a handful of former Diet members who had been convicted of various corruption scandals, known as the “ex-cons;” all of them were elected. With so much color to write about, nobody paid much attention to the main opposition or its issues.

I always had a hard time believing that Japanese people would storm the voting booths because they were hell-bent for postal privatization. Most people, if left to them selves, probably would prefer to keep the system that is familiar to them. The purported benefits of change are long-term and sort of abstract.

Nonetheless, Koizumi harped constantly on this one policy, turning the polling into a one-issue election. His genius was to persuade large numbers of floating (independent) voters that the reform of the postal savings system is a necessary first step in other important changes that will be good for Japan in the long run.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan offered a potpourri of mild reforms, which they never seemed able to implant in voters minds against the force of Koizumi’s one fixed idea. Having lost more than 60 seats, the party is set for a long spell in the political wilderness, if in fact it doesn’t crack up.

Foreign policy played almost no part in the election, even though opposition leader Katsuya Okada promised specifically to do things, such as withdrawing Japanese troops from Iraq, that are generally supported by most Japanese, according to most polls. But that seems to have had no impact at all.

The premier was adroit enough not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine this past August 15, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It seems likely he will resume regular visits, possibly before the end of the year. Meanwhile, a Chinese naval flotilla sailed provocatively in disputed waters, a reminder of tensions between the two countries..

In the end people simply trusted Koizumi to do what he says he would do. In a world of diminished political figures, an ailing French president, a tired Gerhard Shroeder, a wounded Tony Blair, a floundering George W. Bush, Koizumi stands out as a real leader. Odd that he should be a Japanese.

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