The setback suffered by the Liberal Democratic Party in Sunday’s House of Councilors election indicates that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s magical voter appeal is ebbing.
With the Democratic Party of Japan, the nation’s main opposition force, generating major gains, voters have apparently given Koizumi’s hitherto wildly popular political style a big thumbs down, according to analysts.
The election results also show that the influence of the LDP’s traditional support groups — including post office chiefs, business associations and agricultural cooperatives — is slipping, they said.
Despite the poor results, however, no rival politicians within the LDP advocated Koizumi’s resignation Sunday night, reflecting a lack of alternatives.
“The prime minister would not be held responsible” for the results of the election, said LDP Deputy Secretary General Fumio Kyuma.
But according to Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University, the setback may be the logical result of Koizumi’s own brand of populism.
“Koizumi has attached greater importance to the ways in which his policies are portrayed through the media, but not on drawing specific policies themselves,” Kawakami said.
Koizumi is known as a master of surprise and media control, having repeatedly boosted his poll approval ratings with dramatic political events, most notably two surprise visits to North Korea.
Koizumi also won great voter popularity with showy slogans and scorn for his LDP foes.
Kawakami argued, however, that in this election, pension reform issues and the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq were the hottest topics, both of which are difficult to understand and require careful explanations in order to garner support.
Instead of explaining the pension reforms thoroughly, Koizumi resorted to his usual strategy of posing as a reformer by merely talking about the possible integration of different pension schemes into one system as a future goal, without making drastic changes to the government’s reform package, Kawakami said.
Koizumi also angered voters by refusing to apologize for or explain his failure to pay into the national pension program in the past, as well as for joining the corporate employee pension program despite having never actually worked at a company to which he belonged in name only.
Koizumi’s attitude contrasted sharply with that of Katsuya Okada, president of the DPJ, who is widely perceived as a square and serious politician, Kawakami added. Okada replaced Naoto Kan, who, like other politicians also neglected to pay into the pension scheme.
The DPJ waged strong campaigns in single-seat electoral districts.
Most of these constituencies are rural — traditional strongholds of the LDP. But in Sunday’s election, many of these districts saw neck-and-neck races between LDP and DPJ candidates.
LDP Upper House heavyweight Mikio Aoki acknowledged that Koizumi’s austere administrative reforms, which cut budget allocations for rural areas, weakened election-backing machines in these areas, such as agricultural cooperatives and construction companies.
A grim-faced Aoki said during a TV interview Sunday night that it could not be denied that rural voters had been driven away by Koizumi’s policies.
Meanwhile, the DPJ was trying to win over conservative voters in rural areas in addition to urban supporters, aiming to to become a major party that can fight the LDP all across the country.
“It is very remarkable that the DPJ has emphasized its agricultural policies,” said Norihiko Narita, professor of politics at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, without elaborating.