Sound-bite tactics pay huge dividends

by Reiji Yoshida

Turning his back on the Liberal Democratic Party’s traditional campaign strategy and gambling his political career, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi turned the political landscape upside down with a historic landslide victory in Sunday’s election.

The LDP’s stunning victory gives the party a clear majority for the first time in 15 years, and calls are likely to grow for Koizumi to continue serving as prime minister beyond next September, when he said he would bow out.

The election result will also likely lead the LDP, whose power base has traditionally resided in rural areas, to shift its policies and election focus more toward urban voters with no particular party affiliation, observers say.

Koizumi is believed to have won his major victory by repeating easy-to-understand sound bites, asking voters whether they will support or go against his postal privatization bills.

In doing so, he deftly avoided other issues, including foreign relations and social security, which the DPJ had tried to highlight.

“I think Koizumi has a thorough understanding of the power of TV and the mass media,” said Tatsuo Inamasu, a professor at Hosei University and an expert on media issues.

Inamasu said Koizumi’s main campaign tactic was to captivate the media by fielding high-profile candidates to “cause extraordinary excitement” among the general public.

“I never imagined (Koizumi’s) approval rate would surge so high,” the professor said.

The prime minister also broke with traditional community-oriented campaigning and fielded fresh pro-Koizumi candidates, many of them women, with meager local connections.

The LDP’s long-standing election strategy has been to mobilize business groups and rural residents who covet big public works projects in their communities.

Many LDP executives initially expected the party to lose seats in Sunday’s election, saying that casting out the 37 LDP Lower House rebels who opposed the postal privatization bills would split the traditional conservative vote, to the benefit of DPJ candidates.

But Koizumi’s successful playing of the media game drew massive numbers of urban “floating voters” to the LDP, voters who had been considered potential supporters of the DPJ.

According to an exit poll by NHK, 32 percent of voters with no party affiliation cast ballots for the LDP, while 39 percent voted for the DPJ. In the previous Lower House election of 2003, only 22 percent voted for the LDP while 56 percent voted for the DPJ, according to NHK.

Observers say the success of Koizumi’s media-oriented, sound-bite campaign will make both the LDP and DPJ more conscious about television.

They also say that with Sunday’s victory, Koizumi’s power within the coalition government will be even stronger, with some members of the LDP as well as its coalition partner, New Komeito, calling for Koizumi to extend his reign.

Koizumi has so far consistently repeated his earlier pledge to quit next year.

But asked Sunday night whether Koizumi should extend his stint for one or two years, New Komeito President Takenori Kanzaki said, “I hope Mr. Koizumi will continue to serve as prime minister, and I will ask him about it on every possible occasion.”

If Koizumi stays in power beyond next year, analysts say he will wield strong influence over the Upper House because the LDP will face the next Upper House election in 2007 with him at the helm.

The landslide victory will also change the balance of power within the ruling bloc.

New Komeito executives, apparently fearing their party’s influence could be reduced by the LDP’s single-party majority, stressed Sunday that the LDP still doesn’t have a majority in the Upper House without New Komeito.

“There won’t be any effects (on the coalition),” Kanzaki emphasized, “because the LDP wouldn’t have a majority without New Komeito in the Upper House.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Japan is likely to have a tough time maintaining its unity and avoiding defections.

Failing to meet his promise of winning power in the election, DPJ chief Katsuya Okada indicated he will step down.

DPJ Deputy Secretary General Yukio Edano also said the DPJ will have to review its tactics to deliver the party’s message to voters.

“We have to reflect on if we were able to firmly deliver our message to neutral voters” who do not regularly support the DPJ or the LDP, Edano said.