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Should Abe stay or go? Japan debates the LDP’s electoral defeat

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WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has told the Japanese public that despite his ruling coalition government’s devastating defeat in the July 29 Upper House elections, he will do “the responsible thing”: He will stay on as the party’s leader and as Japan’s prime minister.

He has asked some of the party’s key factional representatives to publicly back his decision, and has met Akihiro Ota, leader of the LDP coalition partner, Komeito, to issue a joint statement that their cooperation would continue. Komeito also suffered badly, losing key districts to Democratic Party of Japan competitors.

Since this announcement, made very early as election results came in on election night, Abe’s decision has been the focal point of national debate. The leader of the winning party, the DPJ, has forcefully argued that the time has come for regime change in Tokyo, and the DPJ leadership — Naoto Kan, Yukio Hatoyama, and the conspicuously cheerful architect of the DPJ’s electoral success, Ichiro Ozawa — insist that their goal is a change of government. They plan to push for dissolution of the Lower House and a new general election that would test the LDP (and Abe’s) mandate.

But it is not just the DPJ that is up in arms over Abe’s decision to stay on. Men and women throughout Japan have been asked if Abe should step down. Most of the time, the interviewee shrugs and says, “of course he should,” as if the answer is obvious. Almost every Japanese can recount the line Abe put forward during the campaign: “Do you want me or do you want the DPJ’s Ichiro Ozawa to run the country?”

By throwing down the gauntlet in this way, Abe created the problem he is now trying to ignore. He made the Upper House election a test of his leadership, and the electorate seems to have clearly given him a thumbs down.

Part of the national debate focuses on Abe’s decision to interpret his responsibility differently than much of the rest of the country. He argues that, as Japan’s prime minister, he must ensure that the government continues to function. He claims he must act to prevent a “power vacuum” from forming at the top of the Japanese state, and ensure that political chaos is avoided.

On the Tuesday following the election, he made house calls to three of Japan’s former prime ministers — Yasuhiro Nakasone, Yoshihiro Mori and Toshiki Kaifu — to ask for advice. Nakasone went public after the meeting and told TV cameras that he advised Abe to stay strong, and to remember that his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi had to hold the line in face of deep national antagonism over the revision of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Mori and Kaifu gave a more muted response, suggesting that if he was going to stay on, he needed to quickly reshuffle his Cabinet to avoid becoming a lame duck.

But while Abe was visiting his predecessors, his party’s leadership was meeting to discuss the election results and their party president’s decision not to resign. Key members of the party publicly criticized his decision. Shigeru Ishiba, an up and coming party leader and former Cabinet member in the Koizumi government, was blunt. Ishiba said Abe had asked voters to choose between him and Ozawa, and they chose Ozawa. He felt that Abe’s argument about staying on made no sense.

Others made similar complaints suggesting that the party needs to be concerned about the impact this will have on the credibility of the LDP, and thus on a future Lower House election. One Diet member angrily accused the current Cabinet — and in particular, its less than forthcoming (former) agricultural minister who was embroiled in one of the Cabinet’s many scandals — of getting in the way of those LDP politicians who were working hard to represent their constituents.

Throughout the day, one LDP member after another discussed in the media their reactions and the dilemma this causes the LDP. One theme kept re-emerging: Abe’s decision was his and his alone. All the contenders for the party leadership last year, Taro Aso, Yasuo Fukuda and Sadakazu Tanigaki, were on television, suggesting the need for the party to regain the public’s confidence.

But would they be willing to step up to challenge Abe? All demurred, saying it was up to the prime minister to decide to step down. When Foreign Minister Aso was asked directly whether he was ready to take over the party’s leadership, he said it was not his habit to take advantage of another person’s weakness.

This is a ruling party that is truly stymied, and at the moment, the party can neither fully endorse its leader nor find the wherewithal to argue for his replacement.

The public debate over Abe’s decision is likely to continue. For now, the LDP seems intent on trying to bring unity to the party and find a way forward with the public. Last Wednesday, scandal-ridden Agriculture Minister Norihiko Akagi belatedly resigned, the second agricultural minister in the Abe Cabinet to be accused of corruption (the first, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, committed suicide in May). Meetings with regional LDP leaders produced intense criticism of the prime minister’s “old-school” politics, but these conversations also revealed that concern for the party is intense.

Expect a Cabinet reshuffle sooner rather than later as the LDP seeks to regain momentum with voters. It is possible that Abe will change his mind, but as of now, that seems unlikely.

So what does this mean for governance of Japan? The prime minister and the ruling coalition face several challenges. The first is selecting new leaders, both for the Cabinet and for the LDP.

Expect Abe to reach out to party members who have not been his best friends, but who may now be necessary for his survival. It will be interesting to see what bargains will be struck as the prime minister reorients himself to an LDP that is more uncertain about its electoral future and less convinced of his ability to lead.

The second challenge is sorting out how to work with the opposition parties. The July 29 victory made the DPJ the largest party in the Upper House. As a result, it will now chair Japan’s second legislative chamber, and will have the prerogative of influencing the leadership of committees that review legislation.

This is the first time in the postwar period that a party other than the ruling party will manage the Upper House. The DPJ leadership has already made it clear that it sees its job as drafting new legislation rather than simply responding to the government’s legislative agenda. Look for new initiatives — many of which are already outlined in the DPJ manifesto.

The question is what priority the DPJ will put on its legislative agenda. Will it make economic issues that were at the front of voters’ minds its priority? If so, pension reform and a job-creation bill that will be particularly helpful to Japan’s stagnant rural regions might be key initiatives. Agricultural policy revision might also be in the mix.

But the government also has a legislative agenda. The antiterror legislation that allows Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to assist coalition forces in the Indian Ocean is up for extension in the next session of the Diet. The DPJ has announced it is against this bill, and the government may find itself embattled over its relationship with the United States at a time when it needs to be addressing more forcefully the Japanese people’s concerns over the economy.

The always-contentious issue of tax policy is also up for legislative attention in the fall Diet session. The Abe administration has promised an overhaul of Japan’s tax system, one that attends to both the government’s economic growth objectives but also to public concerns about rising income inequities created by structural reforms. The pension system — and its long-term viability — remain a key issue for the Abe government, and although the prime minister and his Cabinet have promised to clear up 50 million missing records, the ultimate concern among younger Japanese is whether the current system can take care of them as they age. The Abe government has steadfastly refused to answer opposition party questions about how much of a tax increase Japanese voters should expect. A tax hike is expected, but there will be a fierce debate over how those taxes should be spent.

Clearly, the DPJ and other opposition parties will try to force the government to compromise on key legislation. A new era of negotiation has begun in legislative politics, and this will continue until a new Upper House election offers the prospects of a different balance of power.

The DPJ will also be severely tested. There was little sense that the DPJ won the electoral contest on its own merits, although credit must surely be given to Ozawa’s tactical genius in the campaign. Substantively, however, it remains to be seen if the DPJ can carry off “policymaking” via the legislative process.

This is a critical test of Japan’s newly emerging “second party,” and one that the LDP will do everything it can to help the DPJ fail. But without demonstrated success at policy management and clear successes in changing long established legislative practices, the DPJ will not get a second chance.

There is another outcome that many Japanese recognize and indeed anticipate: The process of political party realignment, begun when Ozawa left the LDP in 1993, remains incomplete. There is a tension in both the LDP and the DPJ that will play out in coming months over policy priorities (as opposed to political tactics and strategies). The beliefs and priorities of these two political parties will be sorely tested in the legislative debates ahead.

Several areas will show the strains in each party. First and foremost is in the national security and foreign policy agenda articulated by each party. The DPJ’s leadership has thrown down the gauntlet on the issue of Japan’s antiterror legislation, a policy initiated after Sept. 11, 2001, by the Koizumi administration. This will create strains within the party as younger DPJ leaders differ in outlook from the current DPJ leadership.

Likewise, there are tensions within the LDP over the best way to proceed on foreign policy, and many who have been isolated under the Koizumi and Abe administrations will be supportive of a more multilateral and Asia-oriented diplomacy.

On economic and social policies, there are cleavages in both the DPJ and the LDP. Already, some within the DPJ are worried that the party’s leaders are focusing too much on a Lower House election instead on how to translate their campaign slogan “Putting People’s Lives First” into concrete policies.

For many in Japan, another round of political realignment needs to take place before these two large political parties can truly claim to represent contending visions of Japan’s future. But a transformation of that scale in the foundations of today’s party politics may bring the kind of chaos that Abe has alluded to, and that has many in the LDP worrying that the party may not be able to hold itself together.

At least on the stage of legislative politics, however, Japanese voters have given the opposition parties latitude to transform Japanese politics. In the short run, this will give the DPJ a chance to show how it might rule if given the chance.

If the Abe government cannot recapture public confidence, we may see a Lower House election sooner rather than later. The results of that contest will tell us just how much change the Japanese people are ready to embrace.

Sheila A. Smith (Ssmith@cfr.org) is a Japan fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs. The article originally appeared in PacNet Newsletter.