Sunday’s general elections gave overwhelming approval to the continuation of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reform policy. The clear-cut, simple rhetoric employed by Mr. Koizumi, who focused on postal-service privatization and called it the cornerstone of reform during campaigning, won the hearts of voters. In contrast, Mr. Katsuya Okada, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, failed to put together a persuasive message to sell his policy measures.
The election results also point to strong voter support for Mr. Koizumi’s maverick political style, which goes against the grain of Japan’s postwar politics. Mr. Koizumi went to the extreme of purging opponents of the postal-service privatization bills from his Liberal Democratic Party, drawing a clear line between his political friends and foes.
Certainly, the election results should be viewed as an approval of the postal bills. But they should not be taken as a wholesale mandate for Mr. Koizumi’s policy measures as he failed to elaborate on his future reform plans during the campaign.
In addition to his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Koizumi’s tactic in selecting candidates also greatly helped the LDP. He ran his handpicked candidates, or “assassins” — many of them high-profile women — against the opponents of the postal bills in their constituencies. This tactic created a theater effect, which increased turnout and appeared to have attracted voters to the LDP’s side.
Now that Mr. Koizumi has purged the opponents of postal reforms from the LDP, the ruling party will be considerably different from what it was in the past. Mr. Koizumi has succeeded in “purifying” the party along his policy lines and he will use the election victory as leverage to impose his will on party factions and members.
Though constitutionally questionable, Mr. Koizumi’s decision to dissolve the Lower House after the defeat of the postal bills in the Upper House more than paid off. The LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito, which garnered more than two-thirds of the Lower House seats, will be legally able to overturn a vote by the Upper House even if the latter rejects the postal-reform bills.
During the campaign, Mr. Koizumi told the voters that freeing up 340 trillion yen in postal savings would help not only revitalize the economy but also advance administrative and financial reforms. But it would be simplistic to think that postal-service privatization can solve all the structural problems the nation faces.
Even if the postal bills pass the Diet, the nation will have to struggle with other immensely difficult issues, such as its enormous 700 trillion yen debt and reform of social security, including pension and medical services, which is becoming urgent as the population grays and shrinks due to the declining birth rate.
Had it employed more skill, the DPJ could have exploited these serious problems to effectively attack the LDP during the campaign. The defeat of the No. 1 opposition party can be attributed to Mr. Okada’s failure to present a clear antithesis in the debate over postal services, the central theme of Mr. Koizumi’s campaign. While opposing Mr. Koizumi’s postal bills, Mr. Okada did not rule out privatization of postal services in the future and also even mentioned the possibility of simply abolishing the postal savings and insurance services.
Mr. Koizumi’s steadfast insistence on the importance of his postal reforms gave the voters the impression that he is a reliable and strong leader with firm beliefs, while Mr. Okada’s stance made him appear to be fuzzy and unclear on this central issue. The lesson is that if an opposition party wants to grab power, it must first pinpoint the real issues, show a strong will to resolve them, work out realistic proposals and present them in an easy-to-understand and appealing way to the voters.
In the postelection politics, the parties need to work out a detailed strategy to end the nation’s reliance on the issuance of bonds to raise revenue and to reduce the central government’s expenditures. Tax increases and the imposition of other financial burdens might become necessary to achieve financial reconstruction and prevent the collapse of social security. The parties must first present convincing plans to reduce government expenditures, such as streamlining the bureaucracy and eliminating wasteful spending, and then present their future tax proposals.
Now that the ruling coalition has been given an overwhelming majority in the Lower House, it must meet voters’ expectations by presenting policy measures that give the public a greater sense of security.
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