Snap polls in Japan

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi calls elections two years ahead of schedule after his attempt at postal reforms fails to find support in the upper house of Parliament.


FOUR years ago, Junichiro Koizumi, basking in the political glow of becoming Japan's maverick but much-hailed Prime Minister, said: "I will change the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party, his base]. And, if it will not change, I will bring it down." The political countdown for the moment of truth over that pledge is fast approaching.

On August 8, after losing a set of postal privatisation bills, the centrepiece of his economic reforms agenda, by a margin of 125-108 in the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of the Diet (Parliament), Koizumi called a snap general election for September 11, nearly two years ahead of schedule. By doing so, he carried out his threat of dissolving the House of Representatives if recalcitrant Councillors were to craft the defeat of his pet project.

The irony was that Koizumi "punished" the House of Representatives, which had endorsed his initiative, even if only by an eyelash-margin (Frontline, August 12). While the paradox was not lost on the Japanese political elite, there was no real surprise, though, that it was his trump card to try and carry out his reformist pledge of mending or breaking the LDP.

The LDP, in power since the mid-1950s, except for a brief period in 1993-94, has, in the reckoning of Koizumi and many political opinion-makers, remained a hotbed of power-brokering and political intrigues. It is this aspect of the party system in Japan's post-imperial democratic order that he has pledged anew to reform, this time by seeking the people's mandate.

Even now, the main political plank of his electoral gamble is the privatisation of the postal services in a humane way (as he outlines it).

As the world's "largest" savings-and-insurance project by a huge margin over the others, Japan Post has been a key refuge of the middle class that burgeoned during the prosperity years that preceded the current and prolonged economic downturn. Additionally, Japan Post caters to small communities in remote mountainous areas, in a "social service" mode.

Koizumi has been attacked for putting at risk such a social obligation - a charge he has rebutted by emphasising that his initiative provides for safeguards against the dismantling of village-level postal facilities on grounds of "un-profitability". But the real issues go beyond the "social conscience" of Koizumi's opponents and his own "concern" for the marginalised Japanese.

The postal services are manned by nearly 400,000 civil servants, a manpower base that LDP "bigwigs" and those of other parties have exploited for their political ends. The parties, especially the LDP, are widely believed to have co-opted a number of field-level Japan Post employees for political work at the grassroots. These linkages are of a piece with the "iron triangle" of linkages among sections of the ruling party (or parties in the coalitions that have been a recent norm) as also the politically active segments of the civil service and various interest groups.

Koizumi's electoral battle will have a strong sub-plot of ways to erode this "iron triangle" if he goes the whole hog to cleanse the Aegean stables of Japanese politics. Not surprisingly, he has lamented that the Opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had failed to back him over the postal bills, despite its own calls for political-economic reforms. Angry over the numerous dissidents within the LDP, he wanted to know why the DPJ, if it had really cared for reforms, did not present its own scheme of postal privatisation as an "alternative" to his project.

The signs, as of mid-August, were that his opponents, within the LDP in particular, were willing to join battle with Koizumi, who declared at a press conference in Tokyo on August 8 that he would purge anti-privatisation representatives from his list of candidates for the polls.

The stage was thus set for Koizumi's double-gamble - a general election to bring about larger political reforms through a major economic-initiative.

Visualising "Japan beyond the end of history", David Williams had traced the success story of Japan's post-imperial economy, which lasted almost till the beginning of the 1990s, to the adaptation of the ideas of Friedrich List, a 19th century German thinker, who made out a case for the state's vital role in the economic development of a nation.

This should, in some ways, answer the anomaly of Koizumi having to wage a huge political battle over privatisation in a largely "market-oriented economy". However, some other Western scholars, notably J.A.A. Stockwin (a long-time Japan-watcher), have pointed out that some Japanese experts think that any plan of political reforms in Japan should now be "adjusted to an American standard" in the light of the ongoing globalisation trends.

Eager, therefore, to privatise the vestiges of Japan's state-led political economy, by presenting the postal services as the main poll issue, Koizumi may seek a major remoulding of the political system, should he win the general elections. For the people, however, his unpopular military support for the U.S. in Iraq, his willingness (or otherwise) to distance himself from Japan's imperial past despite "a sense of nationalism" and his efforts to place Tokyo firmly in the "big league" of the United Nations will be no less important issues.

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