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A landslide in Japan

Print edition : Oct 07, 2005

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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi wins a massive mandate for his reform agenda in the September 11 general elections.

P.S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

RUNNING the extra mile, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won an astonishing mandate for "economic and political reforms" in the snap general elections held on September 11. The outcome, a two-thirds-plus majority for Koizumi's coalition of `reformists', far exceeded "the best" that he himself had hoped for - a "slim majority" for his partially purged Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the new 480-member House of Representatives, the powerful lower chamber of the bicameral Diet (Parliament).

Not surprisingly, pollsters and pundits were made to look like `novice-experts', having been unable to predict anything of this avalanche that hit Japan's political landscape. Even exit polls on election day were way off the mark in projecting the size of Koizumi's mandate.

By sheer coincidence, Koizumi called the snap elections for the fourth anniversary of "nine-eleven" (the day in 2001 when the infamous terrorist blitzkrieg on the United States shook the world). Now, "nine-eleven" is certainly not a positive metaphor in the sense in which Magna Carta (the English charter of 1215 that limited the absolute power of British monarchs) has come to symbolise a mandate for positive action.

Koizumi fielded a band of "political assassins" to try and defeat the "anti-reform" LDP dissidents who had voted against his postal privatisation bills (Frontline, August 12) in the House of Representatives, which was dissolved on August 8 to pave the way for the elections. As many as 34 of the 37 LDP rebels stood for re-election, either as independents or on the ticket of marginal new parties that they formed specifically for the elections.

In the event, the Prime Minister's "political assassins" managed to trounce about half the rebels in the electoral fray. The moderate score-card of the "political assassins" does, in a sense, distort the overwhelming mandate that Koizumi has obtained.

Over 67 per cent of the 103.36-million-strong electorate voted in respect of the 300 single-member constituencies and also the 180 seats decided on the basis of proportional representation across 11 blocks. While the voter turnout was the highest in 15 years, it was again after 15 years that the LDP won a majority on its own steam in the lower chamber. The party recorded its highest ever tally of 300 seats in 1986. This time its individual score is the next best, 296, the same as its score in 1960.

In Japan, where domestic politics is a prime concern and perhaps also a pastime, the latest poll was the 44th for the lower chamber alone, since the adoption of the U.S.-crafted MacArthur-era Constitution after the Second World War.

The LDP's tally of 296 seats reflects a dramatic increase in the party's individual strength in the House of Representatives (it was 212 in the previous House, after the "revolt" by 37 over Koizumi's reform agenda). With its coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, having secured 31 seats, three less than last time, Koizumi commands a formidable battalion of 327 members.

For the main Opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), its new score-line of 113 marks a precipitous fall from its 177-seat pedestal in the previous House. The blow was hard for DPJ leader Katsuya Okada who had sought to present an alternative "reform" package. The Japanese Communist Party, a long-time player, has stayed stable, at nine seats as before, while the Social Democratic Party got seven, a gain of two.

IN all, the poll statistics and political sound-bites in electronics-and-robotics-savvy Japan favoured the charismatic 63-year-old Koizumi, who has so far remained a `maverick' in the country's "machine politics".

Often regarded as a system of cold calculations for election victories that could keep as many factions as possible happy, "machine politics" has been crafted and put to "good use" by the LDP, which has, as a result, held power for half a century since its formation (except for a break of 11 months during the 1993-1994 political ferment).

The first signs of change in "machine politics" became evident when Koizumi assumed the post of LDP president in 2001. Under the party's conventions while in power, its president is automatically entitled to be the Prime Minister as well. However, under Japan's constitutional practices, one has to be duly elected by the Diet to this governmental position, following a general election or even otherwise.

With Koizumi coming onto the stage as Prime Minister in 2001 as a leader with virtually no factional baggage within the LDP hierarchy, the stage was set for his political experiments with "economic reforms". In one sense, he was selected by the LDP's factional leaders at a time when the party's oxygen supply from "machine politics" was low.

However, the dual positions gave Koizumi an ideal platform to try and break the mould of "machine politics" and to bring about privatisation-oriented "reforms" for revitalising the world's second largest economy, which had become very sluggish by 2001. (The economy has remained in more or less the same state until the 2005 elections.)

The new privatisation debate in a largely capitalist country can be traced to Japan's traditional ways of creating national wealth, under the overall state auspices, and also to some other practices, characterised by experts such as Hasegawa Harukiyo as "the political economy of Japanese corporate governance". The creation and sustenance of national wealth in Japan are admittedly very complex in scope.

However, Koizumi has adopted as the leitmotif of his politics a ringing mantra of "structural reforms". The privatisation of an asset-rich and state-run organisation like Japan Post, which has over $3 trillion funds (several times the size of India's gross domestic product), has been projected as the first "logical" step towards "small government" and economic efficiencies.

With Koizumi having campaigned for the privatisation of the postal department, as the political key not only to overall "economic reforms' but also to a new style of people-friendly politics, the temptation is high indeed, for him and others, to portray the latest election results as a mandate for near-revolutionary "reforms".

By mid-September, before the mandatory special session of the Diet for his constitutional re-election as Prime Minister and for the reconsideration of the postal privatisation Bills, the "reforms" issue acquired several significant overtones.

The buzz in Japanese political circles in the most immediate context of the general elections, was that the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of the Diet which had defeated the postal privatisation Bills in August, would in future be deterred by the new mandate of the people.

More important than the technical niceties related to the passage of the postal bills is Koizumi's political pledge, which reflects his resoluteness to implement the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter's principle of "creative destruction" in breaking the mould of "machine politics" so as to reform the LDP. Two announcements that Koizumi made in Tokyo on September 12 are relevant to his political plans.

Given the size of the mandate, the Prime Minister finds himself in the position of being able to aspire for the status of a man of destiny in Japan's politics at this point. However, he reaffirmed his decision to step aside as LDP president and, therefore, also as Prime Minister by September 2006. He had indicated this, for the first time, several weeks before he felt compelled to call the election.

Not surprisingly, Koizumi came under pressure, even as the election results were pouring in, to change his mind about wanting to quit the political scene in a year's time. By mid-September, even as the chorus of unsolicited support looked like reaching a crescendo, he continued to maintain that there was no reason for him to remain in office for a longer period.

Closely linked to this argument was his other announcement about the future direction of the LDP and the country's politics. He disclosed that he would fashion his new Cabinet line-up and also reorganise the LDP hierarchy in a manner that would help his potential successors (in plurality) to come into their own before one of them could take over the reins from him.

He did not indicate his own preference for any particular person or group of leaders in this scenario. Instead, he virtually called for a shift in focus from the politics of factions and personalities, practised so far in an atmosphere of influence-peddling and games for power, to some really concrete action on "reform" policies.

On a different plane, with Okada having tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to confront Koizumi with an alternative "reform" plan, the expectations of some influential commentators have gone awry, at least for the present. It was believed that the emerging "axis of confrontation" between the DPJ, founded only in 1996, and the LDP could lead to the emergence of a two-party system. The expectation was based on the fact that the DPJ (until the results of the latest elections) was on the upward trajectory in increasing its parliamentary representation.

Koizumi's post-poll strategy is to watch the LDP rebels, some of whom have survived the electoral assault and may require to be "tamed". With these rebels refusing to bow out of the LDP on their own, it remains an issue to be addressed in the immediate aftermath of the elections. Also, the LDP rebels in the House of Councillors remain in place. However, Koizumi's hold over the domestic political situation has been strengthened vastly.

AS Japan's neighbours saw the "Koizumi magic", there was a general sense of relief that he might now be able to focus attention on the domestic economic troubles with little or no real obstruction from his opponents at home. In the near-term projections, a strong Japanese economy would suit the neighbours, including China, which has political problems with Japan. Japan's "lost decade" in economics is lamented by some of its neighbours too.

At the same time, Japan's neighbours in East Asia, China and South Korea in particular, will closely watch how the newly empowered Koizumi will act on matters such as the development of a missile defence system in association with the U.S. and any revival of Japan's alleged "militarist" intentions.

Koizumi's new plan of action, if any, to secure a permanent seat for Japan in the United Nations Security Council, in continued association with India and others or even otherwise, will also be a matter of broader external interest.

Overall, and beyond the insider's view of Japan's politics and foreign policy, the existential dilemma of the country seems to have been best summed up in a winning entry, from a Japanese citizen, in an election-related slogan contest. The entry was: "Is Japan heading towards Wall Street, Iraq or New Orleans?"

To most Japanese, Wall Street in the U.S. is a symbol of prosperity and economic vibrancy. Iraq, however, is an external theatre, where Koizumi has subordinated Tokyo's freedom of choice to that of Washington by sending Japanese troops, although for "non-combat duties", in aid of the occupation forces. The hurricane-ravaged New Orleans seems to signify, in the Japanese sub-text, a sense of the inadequate preparations for emergencies, perhaps, of all kinds.

The challenge for Koizumi is to live up to his massive mandate by his own judgment and by the expectations of his people and Japan's neighbours and the wider international community.

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