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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (July 16, 2003)

Winds of War Propel Koizumi towards Electoral Victory

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

Like the twisting threads of a Shakespearean plot, the political fortunes of the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and his British counterpart, Tony Blair, have been buffeted by the same harsh winds of war. The Japanese media has been intrigued by the parallels and contrasts between the two leaders, who have both faced tough challenges arising out of their support for the American-led invasion of Iraq. Unlike Blair, the much-maligned Koizumi has emerged from the war greatly strengthen and is now on course to lead his party to victory in an anticipated election slated for 9 November. Yet again, the perennially underrated Koizumi has proven that he is one of the most gifted political tacticians on the world stage.

In the opening act of this geopolitical drama, the many anti-Koizumi elements in the Japanese press were scathing about the Prime Minister's international profile. One frequently used line of attack was to contrast the Japanese leader with Tony Blair. Comparisons were made with Blair's almost breathtaking forthrightness and Koizumi's polished indecisiveness. The British leader's clarity of purpose was used to ridicule Koizumi's initial vagueness about supporting the war. Many a prewar editorial concluded that while courage would sustain Blair, a lack of leadership might lead to Koizumi's downfall. Yet, as in all of William Shakespeare's greatest works, the dogs of war devour presumption and on this occasion the prophecies of newspaper editors.

Before the conflict began, both Koizumi and Blair knew that they were risking their entire political fortunes on a swift victory in Iraq. The critical dilemma each man faced was how to overcome intense domestic anti-war sentiment while meaningfully supporting President Bush's efforts to topple the evil Iraqi dictator. For Koizumi, the scale of the task was particularly daunting with nearly 80% of Japanese opposed to war, while in Britain the figure was about 50-60%. Each prime minister was to test the most essential attribute of any political leader: the ability to read the public mood and predict its course.

Blair chose to energetically sell the idea of military action to a highly skeptical British public by emphasizing the need to disarm the brutal tyrant of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Appearing before countless TV audiences, Blair passionately defended his stance. Outside on the streets of London, millions marched in protest, but Blair stood firm. He calculated that once British troops were in action, the nation would fall behind him.

In the antithesis to the Blair approach, Koizumi somberly sought to justify his actions as an unavoidable necessity needed to secure American support for dealing with a bellicose and erratic North Korea. Rather than debating the righteousness of the cause, Koizumi gave the impression that Japan simply had no choice. North Korea greatly assisted him in this task by providing a continuous stream of aggressive rhetoric.

The amazing speed of military victory gave both leaders an initial boost in the polls, but for Blair the afterglow was soon to fade. Despite all his brilliance, Blair miscalculated the deep-seated level of opposition to the war. The subsequent failure to uncover any WMD has seriously eroded his standing and as a result the latest polls now show that the majority of British people no longer trust him. Unless WMD are found reasonably soon, Blair may be forced to resign.

On the other side of the stage, Koizumi's much criticized stance has been totally vindicated and the greatest gamble of his life has hit the political jackpot. His poll ratings have soared up to above 50% and he now dominates the political landscape. Recent stock market rallies and a cunning manipulation of the political agenda have almost ensured that he will win the anticipated 9 November election. This will enable him to remain in office for an additional two to three years. This is an extraordinary feat when one considers that most Japanese leaders only last a year or two in the post. It certainly illustrates that his multitude of media critics have completely underestimated his political skills.

While the curtain in the final act of this global drama has yet to fall, Koizumi is already looking certain to retain his crown in the forthcoming election. As for Blair, his present predicament contains a deep vein of Shakespearean tragedy, which he may find inescapable. Perhaps Dickens' immortal line "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" best captures the current political fates of Koizumi and Blair respectively.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 15 July 2003,, and is republished with permission.)

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