A victory of sorts

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

The Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition wins the elections to Japan's lower House of Parliament, but it might find the going tough in the mid-2004 elections to the upper House.

in Singapore

THE dilemma of re-interpreting a major electoral verdict in order to overcome one's own discomfort - a prospect that political leaders often dread in democracies - has come to haunt Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the immediate context of the snap general elections that was held, at his choice, on November 9.

As in comparable situations elsewhere, Koizumi's first post-result reaction in Tokyo was to emphasise his coalition's collective victory and gloss over the losses suffered by his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). More important, the main Opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ or Minshuto), made dramatic gains in the new House of Representatives, the more powerful lower chamber in a bicameral Parliament. The result has raised the prospects of an eventual emergence of a two-party system, with or without satellites around the main rivals. The result also marks the beginning of a reality check about the possibly waning `dominance' of LDP as virtually the sole arbiter of Japanese politics. The question, therefore, is whether Koizumi can at all regard the `momentum' of his narrow victory, itself a matter of some electoral definitions, as a sufficient motive force that he could harness to pursue his "reform agenda".

Objectively, the poll outcome can at best be seen as a half-vote for or a partial endorsement of Koizumi's plans for a virtual re-invention of the Japanese economy and an equally ambitious reform of the country's political culture of power-based patronage and faction-oriented functioning (Frontline, October 24). A relevant nuance, according to observers in East Asia, is that the latest poll results could be interpreted primarily as a serious setback to the LDP as post-empire Japan's viable political clearing house. The related reasoning is that Koizumi himself need not necessarily be seen as having lost his political lustre as a `reformer' with a high acceptability among ordinary Japanese people. On balance, however, it is too early to bet on the sustainability of his political charisma. Closely linked to this aspect, as Japan prepares for the next elections to the upper House of Councillors by mid-2004, is the political poser whether the "LDP hegemony" is coming under a credible siege from the DPJ.

In the November 9 elections, the LDP managed to emerge as the front-runner by securing 237 seats in the 480-member House of Representatives. However, the stark reality was that the tally - a drop from 247 in the previous House - did not represent an absolute majority, consisting of not only those from the single-member constituencies but also others from the proportional representation segment. Moreover, the LDP's failure became a post-poll talking point in a country that was not really given to such neat calculations as regards any single party in about a decade since the passage of the electoral reform laws in January 1994.

The reason was that Koizumi had, on the present occasion, chosen to set himself the goal of breaking the existing mould of party fortunes and leading the LDP to an absolute majority on its own strength. Now, while he clearly failed to achieve this objective, two factors served as a saving grace. First, the LDP's own tally of 237 crossed the 233-mark which the party had registered in the previous general elections in 2000 under the tutelage of the then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, widely regarded as one of the most unpopular Japanese leaders in recent times. With Koizumi being generally acclaimed as perhaps the most charismatic leader in Japan's present-day politics, his success in taking the LDP narrowly past the 233-mark was a matter of relief to him. Second, the LDP's own grand total climbed quickly, first to 240 as three independents made a beeline for Koizumi's citadel, and then to 244 (marginally more than 50 per cent of the total seats, for `unassailability'), as the New Conservative Party (NCP or Hoshu Shinto) heeded his call to disband itself. Hours after the results were out, the NCP, which won four seats as against nine earlier, merged with its major partner, the LDP, within the framework of the three-party coalition that retained power.

The LDP's other coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, fared the best among the three, with a score of 34 seats as against 31 in the previous House. As on November 11, the numerical strength of the LDP-led coalition stood at 278. It is this facet that Koizumi has now reconciled himself to trumpeting as a `stable' parliamentary majority in favour of his "reform agenda", though the fact remains that the coalition's overall strength is down by nine seats from the earlier 287.

There is also a sub-text to this game of collective numbers of the coalition. Just as three independents have now crossed over to the LDP, the party's tally after the previous general elections had actually risen to 247 from the then post-poll tally of 233, regarded as a sort of political index of `unpopularity', only on the basis of post-poll goings-on involving the elected members. Another question, therefore, is whether Koizumi has now managed at all to break new ground in respect of political practices as distinct from the hard-sell of his "reform agenda". Can he hope to have a political career outside his party, given that Japan's "contested Constitution", as evocatively characterised by Western observers like Glenn Hook and others, has not so far provoked any major debate on the feasibility of a presidential system of governance in Tokyo? Koizumi himself has not yet outlined a definite blueprint of changes to Japan's present Constitution, which some critics see as bearing the scars of the United States' occupation of the country for some years after the Second World War. Moreover, an important view, as articulated by Japanese analysts like Susumu Saito, is that the voters have endorsed the status quo, at least for now.

THREE issues call for urgent attention from Koizumi. First, the contours of a proposed model - or models - of a restructured Japanese economy have not yet been delineated by him or his Ministers, who stayed on, at least until November 12, in their positions as after a Cabinet shuffle in September that followed his re-election as LDP president. It is this task that the Prime Minister might want to address carefully in the light of the poll results. He has, of course, lost no time to claim that the people have endorsed his basic agenda, given that they did not vote in a fashion that could have resulted in his exit from office. However, Koizumi may tread with some caution, at least for the immediate present, though his public style is such that he might not even be averse to appealing to people and politicians across party divisions and forming a new consensus on that basis.

Closely linked to this aspect is another of the three challenges before him. Naoto Kan, the DPJ leader, reminded voters that November 9 marked "the day the Berlin Wall fell". His supporters and some among the "unaffiliated voters" of over 30 million (in a 102-million-strong electorate) took that reminder as his forecast that the LDP's entrenched wall of power might meet with a similar fate. In the event, Kan has vowed to capitalise on the new opening for the gradual emergence of a two-party system. Should his party manage to turn the tables on the LDP in the 2004 elections, Kan can begin to challenge Koizumi on his home turf in the House of Representatives, where the DPJ now commands a strength of 177, an upswing of 40 over the party's previous tally. In all, Kan and the DPJ have signalled their intention to portray themselves as a viable alternative to the LDP. Given this, compelling indeed will be Koizumi's temptation to appeal to the members of the DPJ, besides those in his own LDP, with policies that could generate a national consensus.

On the external front, which presents a qualitatively different challenge, Koizumi has to decide sooner than later about the issues concerning his pledge to send Japanese troops to Iraq on "non-combat duties". North Korea's nuclear issue is also linked to Japan's perception of the U.S. as an `ally'. A missing element in the existing alliance with the U.S., as pointed out by Japanese officials and strategic experts like Nishihara Masashi with reference to the 21st century, is the scope of Tokyo's challenges in areas outside those "surrounding Japan". It is this gap that Koizumi should address as the U.S. breathes down his neck in the matter of Iraq.

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