Wanted: creative leadership

by Brad Glosserman

HONOLULU — As expected, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were defeated in Sunday’s Upper House election. And, despite concerted attempts to lower expectations, the results still embarrassed the ruling party.

Yet, to the consternation of many, Abe has vowed to stay in office to continue the work he began. That commitment is laudable, but a stubborn determination to stay the course is not what Japan needs. Rather, Japan needs creative leadership that can adapt to new domestic political realities and an evolving security environment.

Half the Upper House’s 242 seats were at stake. By Sunday night, the healthy majority of 133 seats held by the LDP and its coalition partners had shrunk to 103. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) established itself as the largest party in the Upper House. The results reversed the positions of the two leading parties. The ballot marks the first time the LDP has been beaten in an election by a single opposition party since the LDP was formed in 1955.

Traditionally, the losing party head would have resigned after such results (Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto did so in 1998 when his LDP won just 44 of 126 seats). Not Abe. After the results were clear, he informed the country that “I made a promise to make this a beautiful country and I mean to carry that out.” And thanks to his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who waged war against LDP party machines, no one is in a position to force him out.

DPJ leaders crow that the results signal Japan’s movement — at long last — toward a genuine two-party system. We’ve heard this before.

The LDP took a beating because:

The government found out that up to 50 million pension premium-payment records had accumulated that it couldn’t identify.

The Cabinet has been burdened with old-style politicians prone to gaffes and tarred by scandal, and Abe is too weak to demand better.

Abe appeared to dispense with principle by permitting “postal rebels” to return to the party after they had been kicked out by Koizumi.

The prime minister’s desire to create “a beautiful country” hasn’t struck a chord with those Japanese focused on bread and butter issues.

DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro has proven again to be a master election strategist.

Despite these complaints, it’s hard to see the election results as a vote of confidence in the DPJ when we consider that the Upper House is the weaker of the two chambers and has historically been where Japanese cast protest votes against the LDP. Through this lens, it looks more like an LDP loss than a DPJ victory.

That’s probably how Abe views the results if his remark after the vote is any indication: “The policies we have promoted are not wrong. I think people do understand that.”

His message is clear: the government will not change course. On many foreign policy issues, that’s good news, as rapprochement with China and South Korea is one of the few real policy successes of his administration. Reversing course would alienate many Japanese and much of the region. Similarly, relations with the United States continue to be a pillar of Japanese national security policy: No prime minister can afford to antagonize Washington.

That raises a problem when dealing with North Korea. Abe has been a relentless campaigner on behalf of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents. He has demanded a full accounting of their fate. The danger exists, though, that this position could isolate Japan in the Six-Party Talks on the denuclearization of North Korea’s weaponry. Abe must develop a more nuanced policy that affords Tokyo flexibility in the negotiations. The U.S. experience in MIA talks with Vietnam could provide some lessons — and warnings for the prime minister.

Abe has shown commitment and determination. Now he must muster the creativity and flexibility that are equally important to success in office.

Most important is a fundamental dilemma of the prime minister’s making: The creation of “a beautiful country” with all its accouterments — instilling patriotic values, pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, and preparing to shoulder more responsibilities on peace and security issues — is the core of Abe’s agenda. He won’t give it up; nor is he likely to diminish its priority.

The election results make plain that the Japanese public doesn’t share that priority. For the most part, they don’t question the evolution of the country’s security policy in that a majority agrees that Japan can take on more international responsibilities. But there are disagreements over how far the country should go. And while there is a legitimate need for debate over the Constitution and revision of Article 9, they depart from the prime minister over the degree of urgency.

Most Japanese are worried about economic issues — jobs, pensions, savings — which have received little attention during the first 10 months of Abe’s term. The prime minister must refocus and address those concerns. It won’t be easy. Many of the economic policy debates require Japanese to question core national values and beliefs. For example, will reform endanger the egalitarianism of modern Japan? How will the country cope with increasing foreign economic influences?

Despite the many changes that have occurred over the last decade, many Japanese — politicians in particular — appear ill at ease about the impact of continued liberalization.

The DPJ faces challenges of its own. The party leadership is pressing the LDP to call a general election (the next one isn’t due until 2009) and has signaled it is prepared to play hardball to force that vote. But the LDP’s large majority in the Lower House — 296 of 480 seats — should neutralize the Upper House. In addition, the DPJ has yet to earn the confidence of Japanese voters; mere obstructionism won’t win supporters. That means devising a program and sticking to it. Compromise and cooperation with the LDP risks further blurring the lines between the two parties and could give the LDP a chance to encourage defections.

Sunday’s election revealed a political system on the verge of dysfunction. The last thing Japan needs is paralysis and confusion. The prime minister must reclaim public confidence and muster some policy accomplishments before the decision on whether to stay in office is no longer his. If he cannot provide the creative leadership required, the people and his own party will ultimately push him aside.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank, and chairs the CSCAP Export Controls Experts Group. This article originally appeared in PacNet Newsletter. E-mail: bradgpf@hawaii.rr.com