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Commentary (July 5, 2004)

Koizumi Faces a Tough Fight in the Upper House Elections

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

At the half-way point of the 17-day campaign for Japan's Upper House elections, a tremendous sense of political drama is building. Normally, Japanese elections are dull and predictable, but not this time around. Polls indicate that the race is too close to call, the outcome hangs by a thread. Victory is within the grasp of either of the country's two main political parties, the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the up-and-coming opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). For Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the race is turning into one of the toughest political challenges of his career.

As the finely-balanced campaign enters the final round - polls are Sunday July 11 - the stakes are on the table and all the cards dealt. The economy, pensions, Iraq and the North Korean abduction issue are the four main cards Koizumi has to play. While his ace is the positive signs of economic recovery, unpopular pension reforms along with Japanese troops in Iraq are seriously weakening his hand.

Adding an additional element of suspense to the proceedings is the future of the mysterious Charles Robert Jenkins, an alleged US military defector to North Korea. Jenkins is the focus of Japanese media attention because he is the husband of a Japanese woman, Hitomi Soga, who was abducted to North Korea in 1978. Resolving their unusual case and reuniting them could turn out to be the wild card of the election, one which Koizumi may risk playing if defeat looks imminent.

Although a loss in the Upper House elections does not directly threaten the continuation of the LDP-led government, a poor showing would substantially dent its authority. In Japan's bicameral system, the Lower House, currently controlled by the LDP, is the more powerful chamber. Nevertheless, Koizumi has staked his reputation on the LDP capturing 51 of the 121 Upper House seats up for grabs.

If Koizumi does well, he could well become one of Japan's longest-serving prime ministers. Defeat could cost him his job and would reconfigure the political landscape into a virtual two-party system.

The outcome of the contest now basically depends on two factors: good fortune and the skill of the players. This scenario favors Koizumi who has proved himself to be a supremely masterful tactician as well as an amazingly daring and successful political gambler. On this occasion, events have tossed the premier a difficult hand and some commentators believe his lucky streak may finally be running out. However, if past performance is any guide, we can expect some imaginative moves from a seasoned political gambler.

Political climate volatile
Of particular worry to Koizumi and the LDP is the fact that the Upper House elections can often be much more volatile than the Lower House elections. Professor Ryoji Yamauchi, political commentator and president of Asahikawa University explains, "During Upper House elections, voters tend to be more adventurous when they cast their ballots, which can often cause much bigger swings than we normally observe in a Lower House election. Voters know this is not a general election and they are not going to change the government. So if they are angry about something, they are not frightened about giving the government a good kicking. That is probably why Koizumi has been looking so worried lately and [DPJ opposition leader Katsuya] Okuda has a permanent smile on his face."

Every three years, half of the upper chamber's seats are contested. Up for grabs this time are a total of 121 seats, consisting of 73 directly elected constituencies in 47 prefectures and 48 proportional representation seats. 320 candidates have registered, 192 for the directly elected section and 128 in the proportional block. [Koizumi himself is not a candidate.]

At stake are the future of the prime minister and the establishment, the emergence, at least in the mind of the electorate, of a nascent two-party system. For Koizumi success is absolutely vital and for the opposition DPJ the poll is also crucial if it is going to have any chance of taking control of the Lower House at the next general election.

A good showing by the opposition DPJ would be a significant development that would create a serious challenger to the long-dominant LDP and probably lead to the extinction of the two smaller opposition parties, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.

While the LDP-led coalition cabinet is under no direct danger from the result, a setback in the upper chamber could prove fatal for the prime minister. Two of Koizumi's LDP predecessors were forced to quit after poor showing in the triennial polls. In 1989, prime minister Sosuke Uno had to fall on his sword after the Japan Socialist Party won big in the upper chamber and in 1998, party pressure booted out prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto who only managed to capture 44 seats.

Koizumi must win 51 seats
Koizumi has repeatedly said, "I will do my best to win 51 seats." However, he has declined to say exactly how he would take responsibility if his party fails to achieve its official target. On election night, the 51 LDP-seats figure will be the make-or-break number to look out for.

In the current race, the LDP has 50 seats to defend while its coalition partner, the New Komeito [Party], is contesting 10 seats for reelection. The LDP has not held a majority in the Upper House for 15 years and currently only controls the chamber with the help of New Komeito. To achieve a majority, the LDP must gain 56 seats in the election. So, Koizumi is playing a cautious game by setting a formal election target of just 51. If he breaks the 56-seat barrier, then he can claim a great victory.

Party elders are in no doubt that if Koizumi fails to deliver the stated 51 benchmark goal, his head in on the chopping block. Mikio Aoki, the influential leader of the LDP's upper house caucus, has stated, "This is an election with the administration at stake."

Meanwhile, the DPJ is buoyant as its energetic new leader, Katsuya Okada, whizzes around the country. While not specifying a number, Okada has confidently told the public, "We will surpass the LDP in the number of seats we gain." Polls show this target is possible as the party is running neck-and-neck with the LDP in many single-seat constituencies, with the results too close to call. The DPJ is ahead in the proportional bloc.

DPJ strategists hope to maintain the impressive momentum the party gained in last November's Lower House election, in which it beat the LDP in the proportional representation bloc. Party officials say the aim is to win 50 or more seats, certainly more than the 38 it currently has up for reelection.

Economic ace
Koizumi and the LDP have made tremendous efforts to trumpet the genuine upturn in the economy, which they claim is due to their good fiscal management and reforms. While out campaigning, Koizumi has tried to hammer this message across. He recently said, "People know the economy is going well. The stock market is rising and we can see things are improving. We've been on the steady road to recovery for 29 consecutive months, bad debt has been written off by banks and there is a decline in the jobless rate. These are the concrete achievements of our reforms." However, this rosy scenario is darkened in some areas by the persistence of various sectoral and regional gaps in economic performance.

While the economy appears to be on the mend, the issue of pension reform has eclipsed the good fiscal news. The coalition rammed through some unpopular pension reform measures in an attempt to shore up the rickety pension system. This process was severely hampered when it was discovered that many leading politicians, including the prime minister himself, had failed to pay their premiums in the past. Opposition parties pounced on the issue and while not exactly offering any solutions, skillfully exploited public anger.

When it was recently revealed that the information on which the government calculated its reform policy was incorrect, the acrimonious pension debate took a turn for the worse. A noisy opposition claimed that the government deliberately withheld vital birthrate projections showing lower than forecast birthrates, something Koizumi has vigorously denied.

The DPJ has called for the abolition of the pension-reform legislation and instead proposed the unification of different pension programs and the creation of a new pension-specific consumption tax.

Professor Yamauchi, political commentator and president of Asahikawa University, observes, "At the moment, the Koizumi administration is pretty unpopular because of its pension reform policy and the related scandals involving top politicians failing to pay their pension premiums. Keeping Japanese troops in Iraq is also another highly controversial issue. Both are obscuring the improving economic situation."

"Iraq is especially risky because if a Japanese soldier is killed during the campaign, the LDP would suffer heavy losses. That is why our troops are living like virtual prisoners, shut away from the sunlight, deep insider their Samawah bunker [in southern Iraq]. They have been restricted to their fortified barracks for weeks and will probably not be allowed to emerge from the protected shelters until after the election is safely over."

The entire pensions fiasco has dented confidence in the government. Public resentment combined with the unpopularity of keeping troops in post-occupation Iraq could easily tip the Upper House election the opposition's way.

Koizumi contemplates Pyongyang card
As the election result begins to look increasingly uncertain, Koizumi may feel it necessary to utilize the North Korean abduction issue as a kind of wild card. In the past this highly emotive issue has proved to be a great poll-booster. On his second visit to Pyongyang in May, Koizumi managed to negotiate the release of five North Korean-born children of four former Japanese abductees, captured by North Korean agents. The blanket coverage of the happy family reunions lifted Koizumi's popularity ratings.

However, the premier's mission in May did not fully resolve the issue and there are still three family members of former abductee Hitomi Soga living in Pyongyang. Soga's husband, alleged US army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins, and their two daughters, Belinda and Mika, refused to come to Japan. He had been serving in South Korea.

Despite Koizumi's best assurances, Jenkins feared being extradited to the United States for a court-martial if he set foot on Japanese soil because of a Japan-US extradition treaty. However, there was a promise of a family reunion in a third country that has no extradition treaties with the US. Since the Upper House election campaign started, bilateral negotiations on the rendezvous have been noticeably accelerated. Successfully resolving the issue would probably give Koizumi a lift in the polls.

The Soga saga has dominated the media in recent weeks with extensive coverage given to Soga's curious form of poetry in which she simplistically pours out her heartache and dreams of family reunion. Soga has not seen her husband and daughters since October 2002, when she returned to Japan after two decades of captivity in North Korea. She has expressed a strong desire for a reunion before July 23, the 19th birthday of her youngest daughter Belinda.

A stumbling block has been Jenkins' refusal to leave North Korea, where he has lived for nearly 40 years. However, Japanese Foreign Ministry sources have informed Asia Times Online that North Korea has now "persuaded" Jenkins to travel to Indonesia with his daughters for a reunion.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and her North Korean counterpart Paek Nam Sun announced late Thursday that the two countries have agreed to arrange a family reunion in Indonesia. The statement dominated the Japanese evening news.

Koizumi's first reaction to the announcement was to say, "The sooner they meet up the better." He enthusiastically added, "They don't have to wait until Belinda's birthday." This seems to suggest that the prime minister may be contemplating arranging a reunion before the election.

If he does, it would certainly create some very positive news and inject fresh momentum into his campaign. The closing days of this hard-fought race promise to be interesting ones.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 2 July 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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