Koizumi reinvents race as issue-specific affair

by Reiji Yoshida

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is changing the face of election campaigns, and one place this is being felt is the Liberal Democratic Party’s Kyoto prefectural chapter, which traditionally has been the LDP’s nerve center for local candidates.

In past elections, local LDP candidates stressed their emotional and economic ties with their constituencies, and were vague in terms of adhering to the party’s national-level policy platforms.

But this time around, the LDP campaign, for both party and candidates, has become issue-specific. Candidates on the ticket must endorse Koizumi’s postal system privatization initiative.

This has put the Kyoto chapter, at least as far as the No. 4 district covering the western part of the city is concerned, in a bind.

Hideo Tanaka won that seat in the November 2003 race, “inheriting” it from Hiromu Nonaka, a champion for the state-run postal services and a political and privatization foe of Koizumi.

Tanaka was among 37 LDP Lower House members who voted against the government-sponsored privatization bills in July. In his case, LDP executives promptly retaliated by fielding Yasuhiro Nakagawa, head of the local agricultural association, as its official candidate in the Sept. 11 election from the No. 4 district.

Chapter executives have given up trying to decide who to back, fearing any choice would lead to sharp divisions among local LDP supporters, including business groups and prefectural assembly members, that could affect future elections.

“We’d suffer greatly if we split up these support groups. We had to make an agonizing decision” not to support either candidate, said an official at the Kyoto chapter, who asked not to be named.

The chapter has taken the brunt of Koizumi’s drive to purge all postal reform opponents from the party’s candidate roster.

But while the purge may appear like a personal vendetta, many pundits say it is changing the style of campaigning in many parts of the country, where races have traditionally seen candidates boast their local connections and avoid promoting specific party policy pledges.

“I think this race marks a turning point for Japanese elections,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of politics at Hokkaido University. “(Koizumi’s) splitting of the LDP by making a policy issue the focal point of the election is a revolutionary change.”

Policy pledges by parties at the national level have tended to be vague, and rife with contradictions coming from individual candidates during their campaigning.

But this time the LDP position is clear and unified: advocating postal privatization. The LDP, whose president is Koizumi, has refused to put any of the 37 rebels on the party ticket.

Immediately after the lower chamber was dissolved on Aug. 8, at least 12 prefectural LDP chapters were prepared to support those who voted against the bills, in defiance of Koizumi.

But Koizumi has stood firm, and now only seven chapters are reportedly backing postal rebels. Other rebels who seek re-election have had to either join with newly formed parties or run as independents.

Yamaguchi predicts Koizumi’s actions will make elections more policy-oriented and force members to toe the party line.

The internal split of the LDP actually prompted the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, to oblige all its candidates to agree in writing to the DPJ platform.

“The LDP’s policy direction has so far been too vague,” Yamaguchi opined. “(Koizumi’s move) is interesting in that he is going to purify the LDP and make it a party that advocates small government.”

But the professor, echoing many other observers, also warned that Koizumi’s “purification” push may have gone too far, as he appears to be trying to rid the party of all his enemies by categorically labeling them “reform foes.”

“It’s now only one step short of fascism,” Yamaguchi reckoned. “(The election) has become more of an internal political struggle within the LDP than (a debate) over policy matters.”

He also said people who vote for the LDP this time will be giving the party a “blank check” for many key policies, because Koizumi is devoting practically all of his campaign to postal reform and avoiding other pressing issues.

Indeed, many of the LDP’s pledges apart from postal privatization have been rehashed from the past, and there are few specifics on pension reform and other issues.

Yet voters seem obsessed with the soap opera battle between the pro-Koizumi and anti-Koizumi camps, instead of following any serious policy debate, he added.

But Koizumi’s sole focus on the postal issue seems to be working — at least so far. Support for his Cabinet in opinion polls has surged after the LDP started fielding high-profile candidates, many of them women, in the rebels’ districts.

According to a survey by the major daily Yomiuri Shimbun conducted between Aug. 17 and 19, support for the Cabinet rose to 53.2 percent from 47.7 percent in a similar poll taken on Aug. 8 and 9, right after the Lower House was dissolved.

“I think (the figure rose) because the focus of the election is very clear,” LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe told reporters on Aug. 25. “A majority of the people now understand that this is an election in which they must say whether they are for or against postal privatization.”

However, some election experts doubt Koizumi and the LDP will fare so well, and point out that the media are only focusing on the districts where rebels plan to run — not even 10 percent of the 480 Lower House seats up for grabs.

Rei Shiratori, president of the nonprofit Institute for Political Studies in Japan, said he believes public interest in Koizumi’s theatrics and support for his Cabinet will recede before voters go to the polls Sept. 11 — after more than a month has passed since the chamber’s dissolution.

“No one wants to keep going to see the same show at the same theater for a month,” he said.

In some past elections, the results betrayed media predictions based on opinion polls, Shiratori noted. One example he cited was the 1998 Upper House election, in which then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s LDP suffered a serious setback despite media predictions to the contrary.

“The wave of excitement (over Koizumi’s media theatrics) will recede,” Shiratori predicted. “For Koizumi, it would have been best to hold the election right after he dissolved the Lower House.”

Election analyst and consultant Takayoshi Miyagawa agrees. He predicted that despite all the media hype, few of the “assassin” candidates drafted by the LDP to run in the rebels’ districts will win in the single-seat districts, although they might get in via proportional representation.

To his knowledge, no first-time LDP candidate has ever won in a district without having previous ties and support from the local chapters, said Miyagawa, president of the election consulting firm Center for Political Public Relations Inc.

Tatsuo Inamasu, professor at Hosei University and an expert on mass media issues, noted voters simply enjoy viewing Koizumi’s made-for-TV drama because they believe society will remain stable even if the LDP falls from power.

But whoever emerges victorious in the polls, the next wave of politicians will have no choice but to follow Koizumi’s exploitation of media exposure — especially television — to project a carefully calculated image.

“A politician cannot survive without being able to deliver a clear message and vision (via the media), even if it may be merely posing,” he said. “Koizumi has destroyed the (old) way of politics.”

The DPJ, too, has become more sensitive to voter reactions via the media.

According to Atsuo Ito, a one-time director general of the DPJ’s secretariat, the DPJ at one time gauged the correlation between its media exposure and its support rate in media polls.

The results showed that the more coverage it received, the more support it got — regardless of whether media reports depicted the DPJ negatively or positively.

“That’s why Koizumi uses the media,” Ito said.

The DPJ now regularly conducts polls to weigh voter sentiment in certain districts so it can quickly replace candidates in the event results showed voters questioned their ability to represent them.

On Aug. 9, a day after the election was called, the party substituted candidates in the Nara No. 4 and Chiba No. 10 districts — reportedly after seeing the surveys’ results.