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Commentary (June 17, 2004)

Europe offers Koizumi some worrying lessons about Iraq

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

As the government and opposition parties gear up for the July Upper House elections, the issue of Iraq is once again beginning to emerge as an important factor in the political arena. This could be a potentially risky situation for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has so far escaped the kind of sharp plunges in popularity that other prominent supporters of President George W Bush's Iraq war have suffered.

Prime Minister Koizumi has indicated that after Iraqi sovereignty is transferred to the provisional Iraqi government at the end of June, Japan's Self-defense Forces (SDF) will continue their current mission in Iraq by joining a multinational force. This would be the first time the SDF has participated in such an operation. The opposition parties are against the proposal and opinion polls suggest that the public is not to keen on the idea.

The political perils of supporting a domestically unpopular war were graphically illustrated in the recent local and European elections in the UK and Italy. Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, both prominent supporters of Bush's Iraq policy, were severely punished by their respective electorates for involvement in the conflict. Unless Prime Minister Koizumi steers an extremely careful course, he too could potentially suffer a similar fate.

Iraq a vote loser for Bush's European allies
Support for the Iraq war dealt British Prime Minister Tony Blair a series of devastating electoral defeats, while his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi also suffered substantial setbacks. The European Union and local elections in both countries gave British and Italian voters their first real opportunities to express discontent over the Iraq conflict. The results have put Blair under intense pressure to quit and have weakened Berlusconi's authority within his coalition government.

The British and Italian premiers are US President George W Bush's closest remaining European allies in the unpopular Iraq conflict and key players in his "coalition of the willing". Analysis indicates Iraq policy has cost both prime ministers heavily at the ballot box. Parties aggressively opposed to the war were clear winners in both countries, a pattern that was repeated in other EU countries where Iraq was a major issue.

In the UK local elections, Tony Blair's once-mighty Labour Party came in an unprecedented third. It got an abysmal 26% of the vote, and in the EU elections did even worse, receiving just above 22% support. These are the worse results in living memory for a governing British party and will likely result in increased pressure on Blair from politicians fearful of losing their seats in a general election possibly less than a year away.

Prime Minister Berlusconi's Forza Italia Party suffered a string of defeats in the local elections as well as a major setback in the EU poll, where its support dropped to about 22.5%. In the last general election, Forza Italia took 29.4% of the vote and 25.2% in the previous European Parliament election. Berlusconi had repeatedly told Italians that his party would capture at least 25% of the vote. The poll was widely seen as a crucial test of the premier's popularity.

Berlusconi has faced strong opposition for supporting the war in Iraq and dispatching 3,000 troops to the country. So far, 20 Italian troops have been killed and one Italian hostage executed. Three Italian hostages were recently freed, easing some of the strain on the prime minister.

Iraq influences Spanish and Dutch polls
While many governing parties suffered losses in the 25-nation European Union elections for the 732-seat European Parliament, Iraq was a significant factor in Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.

In Spain, the recently elected anti-war Socialist government did well as voters responded positively to the party for having already honored its pre-election pledge of withdrawing all Spanish troops from Iraq. The new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, said his country's presence in Iraq was illegal because it lacked a mandate from the United Nations. Opinion polls show that about 75% of Spaniards support this position. Polls also indicate that 90% of voters opposed former Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar's decision to dispatch troops to Iraq. Before losing office, Aznar was one of President Bush's staunchest allies.

In the Netherlands, which also has troops in Iraq, Dutch opposition parties critical of the conflict made significant gains, with losses registered for parties in the conservative coalition government. However, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende managed to stabilize the vote for his Christian Democrats, with his coalition partners suffering the heaviest losses.

Blair faces resignation calls over Iraq
The results of the European Parliament election were announced on Sunday, compounding the woes of Tony Blair, whose party had already suffered its most serious local-election defeat in history on Thursday. The prime minister is facing renewed calls from within his own party for him to resign over his Iraq policy.

Commenting on the catastrophic showing by his party, Blair admitted that "Iraq has been a shadow over our support". He also acknowledged that the decision to go to war in Iraq had cost his party many seats across the country. However, he signaled his determination to continue in office, saying, "It's a question of holding our nerve and seeing it through."

Prominent figures in his party challenged this approach, implying he should quit. Robin Cook, the former foreign minister who resigned from Blair's cabinet over the war, said, "It's not enough to simply say we are holding our nerve, we are seeing it though." Addressing Iraq directly, Cook commented, "The real problem is that in his heart Tony Blair remains convinced that he was right and that he should be ready to do it again. So long as that remains the case, many of the voters who have deserted Labour will not return."

Clare Short, who also resigned as a cabinet minister because of the Iraq War, was far more forthright in her criticism of Blair. She said, "I think that the electorate is sending a message to Tony Blair because the Labour Party seems incapable of correcting him. What we did in Iraq has brought disgrace and dishonor on Britain around the world. As Tony Blair won't change the policy, the only way to make a correction is for him to step aside from the leadership."

A senior figure in the Labour Party, who did not wish to be identified, told Asia Times Online, "There is growing momentum within the party for Tony to step down over Iraq. It can only grow after this double massacre and especially with many of our people losing because of an unpopular war they didn't even support. The problem is, how do we get rid of Tony? There is no proper mechanism for that and, if he refuses to budge, it would be a very bloody affair to remove him, and that could cost us even more votes."

Key members of Blair's cabinet publicly backed the prime minister, denying he had become an electoral "liability". However, rumors persist that some in the cabinet are plotting ways to unseat Blair while supporting him in public.

Blair's Labour Party hammered by Iraq war
The massive scale of Blair's losses are certain to fuel speculation about his continued leadership. The local elections and EU results were the most humiliating defeat in living memory for a governing party. Labour's only real victory was in the London mayoral election, which was easily won by the fiercely anti-war incumbent Ken Livingstone. Livingstone is one of the most high-profile critics of the war.

The polls were the first major opportunity for the British electorate to register their disapproval of the Iraq War and graphically illustrate how Blair's popularity has nosedived since he supported Bush's invasion of the country. Prior to Iraq, 51% of Britons thought Blair was trustworthy, compared with just 39% today. Last year 58% of people said going to war in Iraq was justified, while only 38% now believe that to be the case.

In the EU elections, Labour slumped to about 22.3%, the worst election result by a governing party since 1918 and the party's worse share of the vote since its infancy in 1910. In local elections, Blair's Labour Party suffered major losses in its traditional heartlands, where strong discontent over Iraq was identified as a prime factor for the rout that saw the party lose 479 seats.

According to a British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) news analysis of the local election results, Labour only garnered 26% of the national vote, knocking it into third place behind the Conservatives with 38% and the anti-war Liberal Democrats with 29%.

Prior to the Iraq conflict, the Liberal Democrats had been a relatively small party, but their leader's strong anti-war stance has given them a tremendous poll boost. The party based its entire local and EU election campaigns around opposition to the war.

A BBC news projection based on the local election results showed that Labour would win somewhere in the region of 30% of the vote if a general election were held now. With a general election possibly less than a year away, Blair will now be under massive pressure from politicians fearful that his Iraq policy might cost them their seats. This will intensify demands for the prime minister to resign, but Blair looks likely to ignore these calls which may lead to a plot to topple him.

The local and EU elections have landed the White House's two closest European allies in dire straits, as voters have finally been given a chance to deliver their verdict on the unpopular Iraq War. The double whammy of poll defeats poses a serious threat to the British and Italian leaders' continued survival, with Blair in extreme peril. It appears that Bush's Iraq policy might produce some unforeseen regime changes in Europe.

In order to avoid the electoral nightmares of Blair and Berlusconi, Koizumi is planning to make sure the SDF participation in the multinational force is subject to the four strict preconditions. These will be (1) SDF forces will maintain their own chain of command; (2) the SDF will operate only in areas designated as non-combat zones; (3) the SDF will operate within the scope of the special law for the reconstruction of Iraq; and (4) Japanese troops will not be involved in anyway in the use of force.

Will these conditions be enough to persuade the Japanese electorate of the merits of the mission or will Koizumi suffer the same fate as his British and Italian counterparts? The Upper House elections results will soon prove the answer.

(Some sections of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 14 June 2004,, and are republished with permission. Copyright of those particular section belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)

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