Koizumi's Landslide


On election night in Japan (11 September 2005), as the results trickled in from thousands of kilometres away, I was trying to fathom why the Japanese electorate had voted the way it did. The incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 296 seats and its coalition with the Komei Party now occupies more than two thirds of the 480 seat Lower House of the Japanese Parliament, or Diet.

The voter turnout was one of Japan’s highest ever, certainly under the current electoral system 67.5 per cent of the electorate took part, no mean feat given the voluntary voting system.

Some say the victory was due to Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s shrewd strategy of turning an election focused entirely on the privatisation of the Japan Post into a referendum on his version of privatisation. Just a simple yes or no. Nothing else was really an issue in the media. Everything else the pension crisis, the mounting fiscal deficit, Japan’s military commitment in Iraq, constitutional amendments was a non-issue. The fact that he declared that he would stand down within twelve months of this election – when his term as President of the Party expires – did not bother the electorate either.

Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro

Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro

Maybe it was the electoral system that does not allow for the distribution of preferences, which was responsible for the lopsided result. Post-election research by the Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan’s national dailies, clearly shows this distortion. The LDP won 219 seats in 300 electorates, more than 70 per cent, even though it received only 47.8 per cent of the vote. The main opposition, the Democrats, won only 52 seats, less than a quarter, although the party received 36.4 per cent of the votes. Nowhere highlighted this discrepancy more strikingly than in Tokyo, where the LDP won 23 of 25 seats, with only about 50 per cent of the votes.

Others say the electorate was mesmerised by Koizumi’s dramatic and exciting ‘theatre’, in which anti-reformist LDP ‘rebels’ were hunted down by high-profile, young and aspiring LDP candidates nicknamed ‘assassins’. In acknowledgment of the role played by these loyal candidates, Koizumi has rewarded them with promotion and cabinet posts.

How such stunts were able to distract attention from the mounting deficit is hard to understand. The combined public deficit of national and regional governments now stands at nearly 1000 trillion yen (A$12 trillion) or more than eight million yen (A$100,000) per capita of the population. And this total deficit is increasing by 3.9 billion yen (about A$500 million) every hour.

Despite his promise to cut down the deficit, Koizumi, in fact has added 170 trillion yen to it, since he came in to power in 2001.

Perhaps, thanks to an injection of public money, Japan’s economy is in better shape, at least on paper, but the real picture does not look that rosy. Gloomy signs are everywhere. During Koizumi’s reign nearly 70,000 small to medium business have gone bankrupt. The unemployment rate has come down from the historic high of 5.5 per cent in October 2002, but it is still hovering around 4 per cent.
Unemployment as well as under-employment is particularly serious among the young, with the ‘Freeters’ (Japlish/Engrish for job-hopping part-timers) and ‘Neets’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training) estimated to be around fifteen million, out of a population of 127 million. The number of people taking their lives is increasing remorselessly and has now reached more than 30,000 a year of which 40 per cent are men of working age.

The mass media was largely to blame for not taking up these issues, repeatedly preaching the mantra of deregulation and labelling anyone opposing Koizumi as anti-reform traitors. The media helped to create the illusion that all problems would be solved by privatisation.

Their almost complete silence on Amaki Naoto epitomised this. Amaki, the former Japanese Ambassador to Lebanon, who was sacked over his criticism of the Iraq war, stood against Koizumi in his electorate centred on the port city of Yokosuka, near Tokyo. The electorate has been held by the Koizumis for three generations and Amaki had no real chance of upsetting the current incumbent. His sole aim was to highlight Japan’s involvement in the US war in Iraq, but unlike Andrew Wilkie, who stood against John Howard in Bennelong at the last Australian election, Amaki hardly got any coverage in the media. Although he did not set foot once in his own electorate during the campaign, Koizumi retained his family seat with a record number of votes.

Maybe it was the strong leadership factor, which, it is said, is called for in a time of crisis. Everyone simply loves a winner, hates to back the wrong horse. Maybe the electorate was ‘mind controlled,’ as one of the renegade LDP MPs, Kamei Shizuka concluded on election night. Kamei, a former cabinet minister and party heavyweight, who was instrumental in installing Koizumi in the top job in the first place, was forced to set up a new party and fight off Horie Takafumi, a high profile IT millionaire, parachuted down by Koizumi.

‘Everyone had cerebral concussion,’ summed up another former LDP heavyweight Kato Koichi. Otherwise, why would they vote for a party whose secretary general had promised to raise taxes, not cut them?

What Koizumi will do beyond the passage of the privatisation bill through the Diet is anyone’s guess. As he once proclaimed, he ‘likes politicking rather than policies.’ More uncertain is the question of who will succeed him and what he/she will do with Koizumi’s huge majority should he relinquish his post as he says he will in September next year?

There are hardly any opponents left inside or outside the party. The once mighty faction created by Tanaka Kakuei is a shadow of its former self returning just 36 MPs from this election while the old Fukuda faction, to which Koizumi belongs, has won the most with 56.

There are more non-aligned MPs than ever, many of whom are Koizumi sympathisers and supporters. The Upper House MPs whose voting down of the privatisation bill caused the Prime Minister to call the general election, will now have to vote for it or be kicked out. The power of the Upper House overall will wane, and it may become a mere rubber stamp for the Lower House.

The opposition Democrats have lost more than 60 seats, or a third of their previous share in the Lower House, including those of many leaders. Okada Katsuya’s replacement leader will be chosen next week, but whoever gets the job will have an enormous struggle ahead to regain lost ground. The party is only seven years old and is made up of a fragile coalition of former Socialists, LDP and rightwing Democratic Socialists and may disintegrate.

During the coming political reorganisation, Tanaka Yasuo, the popular novelist cum governor of Shinshu (Nagano) prefecture, and also the leader of the newly formed New Party Nippon, may play a bigger role.

The 9/11 election result is likely to open the door to constitutional ‘reform’; that is, the scrapping of Article 9, which renounces war, fulfilling a long time ambition of the LDP. It may alienate the Komei party, their junior coalition partner, but their support is not as vital as before.

Koizumi will, in response to a call from George W Bush, extend the deployment of Japanese troops in Iraq at the end of the year, another step towards turning its ‘self defence’ forces into a fully fledged army. This would certainly discourage Japan’s neighbours from approving a seat for Japan in an expanded UN Security Council. Japan’s relationship with its Asian neighbours is already strained due to Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine which does not only commemorate Japan’s war dead but also glorifies imperial wars of the past.

This is the second of two pieces by Rick Tanaka on the Japanese elections. The first was in last week’s New Matilda.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.