Japan, Aug 9, 2005
After weeks of fierce political infighting within the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s Upper House of parliament has decisively rejected the flagship postal privatization bills of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, by 125 to 108 votes.
Even though the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito, hold a majority in the 242-seat upper chamber, many members of the fractious LDP joined the opposition to vote down the crucial bills, which were a vital component of Koizumi’s reform program.
The humiliating defeat led Koizumi to call a snap general election, probably for September 11, which opinion polls indicate the LDP will find extremely difficult to win, and may herald a seismic shift in Japanese politics. The failure of the postal bills also probably marks the end of Koizumi’s political career. Even if the LDP retains power, the desperately divided party is highly unlikely to re-nominate a prime minister who attempted political suicide.
Koizumi is believed to have called the election to test the public’s view of his administration. LDP sources said the party would not endorse party members who voted against the bills, a move that may force rebels to form their own party.
The rejected bills formed the centerpiece of the prime minister’s structural reform agenda, but have faced intense resistance not just from the opposition parties, but more significantly from within the LDP. In fact, the party is so bitterly divided over the issue that one of its lawmaker, Yoji Nagaoka, committed suicide after heated confrontations over the measures.
Since the Lower House narrowly passed the plans on July 5, Koizumi had been fighting an increasingly uphill struggle to gain the support of LDP members in the Upper House. He has constantly warned that the bills’ failure in the higher chamber would represent a vote of no-confidence against his cabinet, forcing him to dissolve the more powerful Lower House for a snap general election.
Since becoming prime minister in April 2001, Koizumi has frequently pledged he would either reform the political system or bring down the LDP. He now looks to have hit the self-destruct button, much to the dismay of LDP lawmakers who fear they may lose power in the snap election.
Former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, former LDP deputy president Taku Yamasaki, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Taro Aso and several other key political LDP figures frantically pleaded with Koizumi not to initiate a snap election, but Koizumi could not be deterred. He even threatened to dismiss any member of the cabinet who opposed his decision, forcing at least one member to resign.
Koizumi sees dissolving the Lower House at an extremely inopportune time for the LDP as the only means he has to punish the anti-reformers within the LDP and renew the political system. Others interpreted the move as his way of committing political suicide out of despair over the failure of his life-long ambition to privatize the postal system.
Japan Post is a giant with about US$3 trillion in assets, including the world’s biggest deposit-taking institution, and has nearly 25,000 offices and 260,000 employees. The bills would have split Japan Post into four units under a state-owned holding company in 2007. Insurance and savings businesses were to have been sold off by 2017.
The yen and Japanese share prices fell on Monday when the results of the vote were known. The currency regained its losses, however, and the Nikkei share average later traded in positive territory.
Koizumi cannot dissolve the Upper House, but if the opposition gains control of the more powerful lower chamber, Upper House LDP members will find themselves in effective opposition with no prospect of cabinet seats or other posts.
The main consequences of a snap Lower House election are likely to: reduce the number of LDP lawmakers in the Diet – parliament, terminate Koizumi’s reign as prime minister, give the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) a good chance of gaining power, deepen internal LDP divisions, possibly splitting the party, and kill Koizumi’s long-cherished dream of postal reform.
Even if the LDP scrapes back into power, the divisive postal plans are likely to be shelved for the sake of party unity, and if the opposition wins, it has vowed to kill the plans.
While some see the situation as an ignominious end for one of postwar Japan’s longest-serving and most popular leaders, Koizumi seems to view his actions as a way of going out in a blaze of glory.
Under nearly all scenarios, both Koizumi and the LDP wind up as big losers.
Opposition in a good shape
Koizumi became prime minister in April 2001, and quickly used his personal popularity to take the LDP to a landslide victory in the July 2001 Upper House election and then later to a more modest win in the November 2003 Lower House election, which also witnessed impressive opposition gains. As Koizumi’s popularity has steadily waned, the opposition has become increasingly powerful.
The Democratic Party of Japan displayed its growing electoral appeal by winning more seats than the LDP in the July 2004 Upper House election, even though the LDP retained its majority in the chamber with the help of its coalition partner, New Komeito, which won 10 seats. Koizumi’s current predicament partially stems from the LDP’s slim majority in the upper chamber.
A recent survey by the highly regarded Shukan Bunshun magazine suggested that if an election were held in September it would hand the DPJ a solid majority and reduce the number of LDP lawmakers to below the 200 mark from the current 237. The results of recent Tokyo municipal elections also underlined the DPJ’s ability to attract vital floating voters, who are normally the key element in winning Japanese elections. Political momentum is clearly with the DPJ.
Not surprisingly, the DPJ is relishing the prospect of a snap election and last Friday its secretary general, Tatsuo Kawabata, gleefully summed up party feeling, “If the Lower House is dissolved, we will take it as the chance of a lifetime, and say ‘thank-you’.”
Smaller opposition parties, which in the past have split the anti-LDP vote, have also made things easy for a DPJ victory this time around. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) recently decided to reduce the number of candidates it fields, making more constituencies two-horse LDP-DPJ races, a situation that often favors the DPJ. The Social Democratic Party is also likely to put up fewer candidates than in the previous poll, further boosting DPJ prospects.
Another significant factor in the DPJ’s favor is that the polls indicate that postal privatization is not considered a key issue among ordinary voters, suggesting that Koizumi does not have a vital campaign issue around which to rally the electorate to his side.
Additionally, polls indicate the public is concerned about Japan’s poor ties with China and South Korea, which have been severely strained since Koizumi started visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals along with the country’s war-dead.
The election will probably be officially announced August 30, and the poll most likely be held on Sunday September 11. The law stipulates an election must be held within 40 days of dissolution.
Lower House vote fatally weakened Koizumi
Ever since the Lower House narrowly approved the postal bills on July 5, the LDP has been in a state of severe crisis. Despite a comfortable majority in the Lower House, the postal bills were only approved by a mere five ballots in a truly cliff-hanger vote.
A total of 35 LDP lawmakers rebelled against Koizumi, the largest number since the 37-vote revolt against former prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa in 1993, a rebellion which split the LDP and handed victory to the opposition in the subsequent election. Such a large-scale uprising in the LDP is rare, indicating that momentum was clearly running against Koizumi and signaling that the LDP could be about to break apart, as it did in 1993.
Koizumi tried to put a brave face on the situation, but the sheer narrowness of result, and the much higher than expected LDP rebellion, substantially weakened him. When he appeared in public over the weekend he had the air of a weary condemned man. As the Upper House result was announced he sat grim-faced.
LDP may split
Mitsuo Horiuchi and Shizuka Kamei, two heavyweight LDP arch-enemies of Koizumi, organized the Lower House revolt and promised to defeat the measures in the Upper House, which Kamei described as “round two”. This forced Koizumi to declare that he would take a rejection of the bills by the upper chamber as a vote of no confidence in his administration and call an election. In effect, he put a revolver to the collective LDP head and threatened to pull the trigger.
Horiuchi and Kamei called Koizumi’s bluff, but they may also turn out the losers, as in past elections anti-reform LDP lawmakers have suffered greater poll setbacks than reformers.
Kamei is particularly vulnerable after a member of his faction, Yoji Nagaoka, committed suicide after he was put under intense politically pressure for supporting Koizumi in the Lower House. Fifty-four-year-old Nagaoka hanged himself following heated confrontations with Kamei faction members over the postal privatization plan.
The LDP is currently so riven over the issue that those lawmakers who opposed Koizumi may break away to form their own party, especially if the LDP leadership carries out its threat of refusing to endorse Lower House rebels in the election.
Many of the LDP postal privatization rebels depend on the state-run postal system as a solid vote-gathering machine in their constituencies, where local post office chiefs often act as reliable vote-gatherers during election campaigns. This bond lies at the heart of the fierce opposition to privatization proposals and the forces it generates may rip the LDP apart.
The prospects for both Koizumi and the LDP do not look good, while the DPJ’s star is rising.
J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global Communications.
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