Girding for a Snap Election
Kenzo UCHIDA (Professor, Tokai University)
Events of the past month suggest that 2003 will be a turbulent year at home and abroad. In Japan, rumors of a snap general election are already making the rounds, while the ailing economy appears to be slipping back into recession.
Abroad, particularly in Northeast Asia and the Middle East, the standoff continues over North Korea's and Iraq's suspected programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. The United States, whose global diplomacy has been transformed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is stepping up its campaign against international terrorism.
The U.S. appears determined to disarm Iraq by force although much of the world's public opinion favors a peaceful solution. In Asia, the "nuclear threat" from North Korea is posing a diplomatic challenge for the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia as well as Japan.
Japan's economy, meanwhile, is mired in deflation as prices continue to fall across a broad spectrum of industries. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's structural reform drive is losing steam, even as he tries to pep up a skeptical public.
With a deepening slump hitting consumer pocketbooks ever harder, political pressure is mounting for reflating the economy. Koizumi's critics in the Liberal Democratic Party, as well as opposition parties, are calling for a policy change with the focus on economic stimulus.
For now, the prime minister is sticking to his guns, or so it seems. He is still receiving fairly high approval ratings in media polls, compared with his immediate predecessors. And he faces, it is said, no powerful rival in the LDP's presidential contest this autumn. Nevertheless, after nearly two years in office, Koizumi is seeing his popularity go south.
Results of April's local elections will likely provide important clues to political trends the rest of the year. September's LDP leadership race will effectively select the next prime minister of Japan. More importantly, a Lower House election, if it is held, will set the tone of national politics. When, or even whether, it will be held is anybody's guess at the moment.
It is significant, though, that the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, is taking a confrontational stance toward the government and the LDP. Speaking at the outset of the regular Diet session that convened Jan. 20, Naoto Kan, the new DPJ leader, predicted that the Lower House would be dissolved during this session to hold a general election.
The statement is significant because the popular mood is likely to shift in favor of a national election if the economy continues to stagnate with no end in sight to deflation. In that kind of economic situation, Koizumi's popularity would have nowhere to go but down. That might leave him with no choice but to seek a new mandate.
Recent elections and other developments indicate that politics is headed for change. For example, in last November's mayoral elections in two major cities, Niigata and Kumamoto, new younger candidates beat veteran incumbents. This shows that "new winds" are blowing in local cities, not just in Tokyo.
Signs of change are also discernible in national politics. Earlier this month, the head of the Conservative Party, a junior coalition partner, returned to the LDP, as did the deputy representative of the DPJ. Both men had been LDP members until about 10 years ago.
What is one to make of these moves? The chief motivation, it seems to me, is the prospect of a general election. In other words, their judgment, correct or not, seems to be that as LDP members they will have better chances of winning the next general election.
To be sure, the LDP remains by far the largest political party of Japan. But that is no assurance that it will win big the next time around. One thing is certain: Election jitters are beginning to grip Lower House members. But whether the election will lead to a change of government is another story.
(This article originally appeared in the February 4, 2003 issue of The Japan Times)