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Commentary (May 14, 2004)

Tale of two allies, Koizumi and Blair

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

After the shock resignation of the leader of Japan's main opposition party, Naoto Kan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is looking stronger than ever. The latest opinion survey shows a solid 53 percent approval rating for his administration, despite deep public misgivings over Japan's involvement in Iraq. A new NHK poll indicates that 69 percent of Japanese now disapprove of US policy in Iraq, with just 19 percent saying they support it.

Surprisingly, the controversial conflict has so far failed to weaken Koizumi's position and in some respects appears to have strengthened it. However, as the tribulations of British Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly illustrate, the unstable situation in Iraq can easily destroy the career of even the most skillful of political leaders.

While most Washington-friendly, pro-war leaders struggle to justify the increasingly volatile conflict to skeptical electorates, Koizumi seems strangely immune to most of its corrosive effects. Former opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Kan (who resigned this week in a pension non-payment scandal) was a bitter opponent of the war, a position popular among the voters. Even so, he was unable to utilize the issue effectively against Koizumi, failing to dent the premier's popularity.

How has Koizumi managed to defy political gravity? Can he escape a Blair-style meltdown in the perilous arena of the United States-led war in Iraq and its perilous physical rebuilding and political rehabilitation?

Koizumi kept his pants, Blair bare
Ryoji Yamauchi, a political commentator and president of Asahikawa University, offers some insights. He told Asia Times Online, "Koizumi has very skillfully exploited a mixture of nationalism and North Korea-phobia to protect himself from Iraq blowback. For Blair, there is no such cover. He had to justify his actions with weapons of mass destruction [WMD] threats that turned out to be false. Koizumi kept his pants, while Blair was stripped naked."

He elaborated, "Koizumi made out that Japan had no real choice but to send troops to Iraq if we wanted American support in dealing with North Korea. For Blair, going to war seems to have been an act of faith in [US President George W] Bush. Koizumi's strategy has been the most successful. Recently, it enabled him to sidestep the controversy stirred up by the abuse of Iraqis by the Americans. Koizumi basically told the public that 'this is a terrible thing, but nothing to do with Japan'. The fact that Japanese troops in Iraq have barely stepped ... outside their luxury base also reinforces the impression that the torture of detainees is not Japan's responsibility."

In London, Amnesty International issued a damning report saying the British army has been killing civilians in Basra, al-Amara, and other areas it controls in southern Iraq. The report was based on research in February and March and documents what it calls the intentional shooting of an eight-year-old girl, among other victims; Britain had said she was shot accidentally. Torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops also has been widely reported. In March the Red Cross reported grave violations against civilians and abuse of prisoners by British troops.

But in Japan, which dispatched troops on a strictly humanitarian mission, the horrors encountered by combat troops seem far away. Yamauchi said, "Koizumi has also fired up the passions of neo-conservatives and nationalists by portraying the dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq as a matter of national pride. This helps explain why some people support the dispatch, but oppose American policy in Iraq. The Iraq war has stirred up some strange emotions in Japan and many people are now questioning our blind support for America.

"While Japan might emerge more militaristic from Iraq," Yamauchi said, "Japanese people will certainly be less pro-American."

Best of times for Koizumi, worst for Blair
There are many parallels between the two prime ministers, but as in the best Charles Dickens novels, destiny has dealt them decidedly different fates. Prewar, both men were hugely popular within their respective political realms. In the face of strong domestic opposition, both men were among the staunchest international supporters of Bush's invasion of Iraq, and the two are considered some of the US president's closest foreign allies.

Currently, the premiers also face very similar domestic challenges, but as in an epic novel, their fortunes are now beginning to diverge radically. While the sun shines on Koizumi, storm clouds gather around Blair, who has lost his popularity and may soon find himself out of office.

In both countries there is a deep sense of public unease about Iraq policy. Looming elections will give voters a chance to express their dissatisfaction. In Japan, Koizumi faces crucial elections in July for the Upper House of the Diet, or parliament. Early next month, Blair has local and European elections as well as the mayoral election in London. A bad result for either leader would substantially weaken his position and might eventually lead to resignation.

Koizumi's troops may stay, Blair's may go
In London and Tokyo, the situation in Iraq is a dominant theme. The most recent polls indicate that 55 percent of Britons want their troops pulled out of Iraq after power is transferred to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June and just 28 percent want them to stay. In Japan, the most recent NHK poll indicates that 47 percent of people are against Japanese troops being deployed in Iraq, while 44 percent support the current dispatch.

For Koizumi this is an astonishingly good position, especially considering that Japan has a war-renouncing constitution and a pacifist world view. Lawmakers had to draft a special law in order to dispatch Japanese troops to war-torn Iraq.

For Blair, the opinion surveys are a disaster, revealing the extent of public opposition to the country's involvement in the conflict. The difference between the two polls also illustrates how skillfully Koizumi has managed the situation, while for Blair they underscore his miscalculation about the strength of British anti-war sentiment.

Koizumi awaits electoral success, Blair awaits defeat
With the main opposition DPJ dumping its leader in the run-up to the July Upper House elections, it may be difficult for the party to regain the momentum necessary to mount a serious challenge to Koizumi's governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In the recent unified by-elections, which followed the release of Japanese hostages held in Iraq, the LDP scored a sweeping victory. A recent poll gave Koizumi a 66 percent approval rating for his handling of the hostage crisis.

Resolving the hostage issue along with a strong showing in the July by-elections would indicate that the LDP holds the political initiative, despite its unpopular Iraq policy. While Koizumi is well positioned to consolidate his grip on power in the forthcoming elections, his British counterpart is reading from an entirely different script.

A whole series of recent opinion polls indicate that Blair is on the ropes over his Iraq policy, which has deeply angered many of his Labour Party's core supporters. While other domestic issues have caused Blair trouble, it is widely acknowledged that Iraq has inflicted massive damage on his once-gleaming reputation.

The most recent opinion poll gave Blair's party just 32 percent support and the main opposition Conservatives 36 percent, followed by the smaller opposition Liberal Democrat Party at 22 percent. The last time Labour sank so abysmally low in the polls was back in 1987, when Conservative Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.

Most alarming for Blair, according to the same poll, two in five of his party's supporters claim they will use the June local and European elections "to send a message to the government" by either abstaining or switching their vote. In an attempt to capitalize on the feeling of disillusionment with Blair, the leader of opposition Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, has said a vote for his party is a vote against the war. Last year, a similar strategy catapulted his party to a crushing by-election victory in one of Labour's safest seats.

If the results are as bad as the polls predict, Blair will have to fight hard to stay in office. The only electoral success Blair's party is likely to enjoy next month is in the London mayoral election, where the incumbent, Ken Livingston, is standing for re-election. However, the independent-minded Livingston is one of Britain's fiercest opponents of the war. He helped organize events against Bush when he visited London last year and refused to meet him. He also famously described Bush as "the greatest threat to life on this planet that we've most probably ever seen".

Koizumi's leadership safe, Blair's in danger
Within Koizumi's own party, there is currently no figure who could successfully challenge him for the leadership, a point overwhelming demonstrated last year, when Koizumi was decisively re-elected as president of the LDP. For Blair, this also used to be true, but anger about Iraq has altered the scenario.

Recent opinion polls suggest that Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown, would make a more popular prime minister than Blair and would likely secure victory for Labour at the next general election. Brown is also Blair's main political rival, which has fueled speculation about an imminent change in leadership. Brown has also been largely silent on Iraq, creating the impression that it was very much "Blair's war".

If Labour performs as badly as predicted, there will be immense pressure on Blair to resign. Already leading figures in his party have urged him to consider quitting because he has become an electoral liability. One of the chief reasons Koizumi's party has stuck with him is because he is considered an electoral asset.

If Blair is forced to step down, it would be a spectacular reversal of fortune for a man who has won two landslide general election victories and seemed invincible prior to Iraq. For Bush, the loss of his greatest international supporter would be a severe blow in an increasingly difficult re-election year. Ironically, the only political survivor may be Koizumi, the leader of a war-renouncing country. At times, war really does seem like the unfolding of miscalculations.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 4 May 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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