Koizumi's gambit

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Despite electoral setbacks the Japanese Prime Minister remains obstinate on the question of SDF troops in Iraq, but is flexible on his economic agenda in order to attract Opposition members.

in Singapore

JAPANESE Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has become adept at political spin, does not see the results of the July 11 triennial elections to the House of Councillors (the Upper Chamber of Parliament or Diet) as a setback despite the gains made by the Opposition. In fact, he interprets them as a mandate to continue his agenda of structural economic reforms and a United States-friendly foreign policy.

Councillors serve a six-year term. One half of the seats in the 242-member House are filled through elections every three years.

The main Opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won the largest number of seats. However, the interpretation of the results is best told in the Prime Minister's own words. According to Koizumi, the polls "resulted in a reduction of two seats" for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In a statement issued in Tokyo on July 15, he said: "The ruling parties secured an overall total of 60" and asserted that it "was sufficient to retain the majority in all parliamentary committees of the House of Councillors". This tally includes the 11 seats secured by the New Komeito Party, the LDP's partner in the governing coalition.

Conceding that the ruling and Opposition parties attained almost an identical number of seats, Koizumi interpreted this to be a true reflection of "the voices of the people of Japan". They, in his opinion, have called upon the government to "steadfastly advance structural reform, while at the same time taking into account the opinions of the Opposition parties".

Rejecting calls for his resignation over his failure to enhance the LDP's strength in the Upper House, Koizumi sought to explain away his party's poor showing as the result of a campaign that was marked by "strong criticisms" of his policies, especially those aimed at reforming the basic structure of the long-ailing economy and his decision to send troops to Iraq on a "humanitarian" mission.

Despite the poor showing in the polls, he has maintained that the personnel of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) - the name of the military establishment under the country's pacifist Constitution - will remain in Iraq.

Koizumi's charisma or more precisely his image as a leader with a mind of his own is a distinct feature of Japanese politics today. However, his failure to translate his persuasive skills into votes, which could jeopardise the LDP's record as the party that has always been ahead of its rivals but without scoring landslide victories, is cause for worry.

One possibility, which came into focus after the general elections in November last year (Frontline, December 5, 2003), was that Koizumi could perhaps hope to reach out to a wider political audience in a presidential-style of government. The idea was that he would probably seek to win the hearts and minds of reformers in the Opposition camp, notably the DPJ. So far there has not been much evidence of such a political dynamic, judging by the outcome of the July 11 polls.

In fact, in the present context, one wonders whether Naoto Kan, the leader of the DPJ, will succeed in attracting like-minded politicians from the LDP. But, Koizumi himself has not lost his chance to woo reformers from the Opposition ranks, something that can be discerned from his interpretation of the "voices of the people" that would necessitate the "taking into account" of the "opinions of the Opposition parties" on economic reforms.

ALTHOUGH the reforms agenda is vast and complex, the issues concerning the postal services, the pension system and the overall social security norms are at the core of the political debate in Japan. Koizumi believes that the government should "leave to the private sector what it can do". But, in a larger sense, much of the country's need for structural reform can be traced to the "bubble economy" that was created over the ashes of imperial Japan. The country capitalised on the "comfort zone" provided by the security umbrella of the U.S. after the Second World War.

NOT so ironically, and, somewhat coincidentally, an issue concerning Japan-U.S. ties now figures prominently alongside the reforms conundrum - the SDF's presence in Iraq.

According to Koizumi, the SDF units, which were sent to Iraq under a "basic law" enacted on December 9 last year (Frontline, January 16), will now function under Tokyo's command (not under the U.S. occupation forces, as was the case so far). Two nuances, one relating to the SDF's role before the "transfer of sovereignty" in Iraq and the other being the future role of the units have now been spelt out by him.

"Although operations by the SDF have been focussed on humanitarian and reconstruction assistance," Koizumi said, "there may be cases in which assistance has taken the form, for example, of transportation of necessary machinery and components for the U.S. forces (in Iraq) in order for them to conduct (their own) assistance activities and maintain life." The reference to the maintenance of life is a diplomatic euphemism for security-related offensive operations as distinct from "humanitarian assistance". The collateral help, which the SDF has extended to the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq prior to the "transfer of sovereignty" there, pertains to the acknowledged fact that Japan's Air Self-Defence Force had transported equipment for the U.S. military units.

Koizumi's affirmation that "Japan will consider how it will assist other countries when they need support in conducting their activities and maintaining life" is significant. However, according to Koizumi, "humanitarian and reconstruction assistance" will continue to constitute "the main activities of the SDF". The question is whether this new phraseology of "main activities" could drive the SDF away from its sole activity of rendering "humanitarian and reconstruction assistance" in Iraq. This is not to suggest that Koizumi has now hinted at any kind of security-related role in Iraq for a `pacifist' force like the SDF. However, a new grey area about the SDF's possible role in Iraq has now come into view.

Why has Koizumi, who wants to drive the "shadow shoguns" (backstage power-brokers) out of domestic politics, not been equally firm in dealing with the U.S., given the growing opposition in Japan to the "American imperial project" in Iraq? Although there is no definitive reason as yet, a generic factor at work can surely be traced to a specific comment by a seasoned Japanese political observer of the international scene. Says Takahara Akio: "Many Japanese policymakers ... seem to believe that their task is to come up with policies that are immediately acceptable to the United States." Will Koizumi try to break this "mindset"?

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