The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s victories in five of the seven Diet by-elections Sunday will likely provide Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi with a push in pursuing his policy initiatives, including bad-loan disposal at banks and the upcoming normalization talks with North Korea.
On the other hand, top leaders of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan are expected to face harsh criticism from within the party for its dismal performance. And the fate of Kansei Nakano, who was picked by party chief Yukio Hatoyama as secretary general last month amid opposition from party ranks, may now be in question.
Four of the seven by-elections were held to fill the vacancies left by lawmakers who resigned over money scandals, of whom three had belonged to the LDP. It was initially speculated that the LDP would face a tough campaign, with some even predicting the party may lose most of the races.
The sentiment changed when Koizumi’s popularity ratings, which by early summer had sagged to nearly half their peak level, picked up again in recent months.
However, Koizumi will still face an uphill battle as he tries to follow through on his promise to accelerate the disposal of bad loans, as opposition lingers within the ruling coalition to the hard-landing approach favored by Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka, who was handpicked by Koizumi for the job last month.
Last week, Takenaka was forced to cancel announcing an interim report on his bad-loan disposal measures when he was unable to win the approval of the ruling coalition. Also, the banking industry released a statement condemning Takenaka’s reported proposals, including a plan to introduce tougher accounting rules, as unacceptable.
“The by-election results do not indicate a vote of confidence in (Koizumi’s) policies,” said Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the New Conservative Party, one of the LDP’s coalition partners.
The government plans to release a comprehensive package of anti-deflation measures and steps to promote bad-loan disposal Wednesday.
Koizumi’s diplomacy will also face a major test when the normalization talks with North Korea resume Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur.
Koizumi’s Sept. 17 landmark meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il helped increase his popularity and possibly contributed to the LDP’s victories in Sunday’s elections.
However, it remains unclear how Pyongyang will respond to Japan’s demand that North Korean-born children of Japanese abductees be sent here to be reunited with their parents now on a homecoming visit. The North’s reaction to international calls to halt its nuclear weapons development is also in question.
Public interest toward the election was low from the beginning, as media attention has been focused on the dramatic homecoming of the five Japanese people who were kidnapped by North Korea in 1978 as well as Koizumi’s initiatives to accelerate bad-loan disposal.
Aiji Tanaka, a professor of political science at Waseda University, observed that the opposition camp failed to present clear alternatives to government policies on economic and diplomatic issues, with all the parties stressing the need for a recovery and a resolution of the issue of Japanese kidnapped to North Korea.
Tanaka was also critical of the opposition’s strategy of stressing political corruption in the by-election campaigns.
To woo voter support, opposition candidates repeatedly argued that the seats in four of the seven districts were vacated by lawmakers resigning over money-related scandals, three of whom were LDP members.
Political corruption was a key issue in the first half of this year, highlighted by the arrest of Lower House member Muneo Suzuki over bribery scandals and the resignation of Koichi Kato, a former LDP heavyweight, over his aide’s tax evasion and his own misappropriation of political funds.
“(But) public concern has now shifted to economic and diplomatic issues, not scandals,” Tanaka argued.
For Hatoyama, the by-elections were a major test for his leadership following his re-election as party chief in a close race in September.
When he won re-election on Sept. 23, he was unable for a week to appoint key party executive posts after his appointment of Nakano as the No. 2 man drew fire from party ranks who competed against Hatoyama in the party presidential race.
Although he eventually succeeded in putting his team together, dissatisfaction remains, especially among junior lawmakers of the DPJ, who are likely to intensify their campaign urging Nakano to step down to take responsibility.
Political pundits also suggest that Hatoyama himself may face pressure to resign when the DPJ holds a party convention in January.