System's Flaws Help Keep Koizumi On Top
Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)
From the start of the recent Lower House election campaign it was predictable that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's theatrics -- his constant references to magic "kaikaku" (reform) and the alleged benefits from postal-service privatization -- would have its inevitable mesmerizing effect on Japan's emotional electorate. But why did the opposition parties fail to stage a de-mesmerizing counterattack?
I have vivid memories of Koizumi five years ago waving hair and hands to tell spellbound audiences how official borrowings then at the 700 trillion yen were a national calamity and that annual deficit bond issues had to be capped at 30 trillion yen.
Today official borrowing has ballooned to close to 900 trillion yen and deficit bond issues are close to 35 trillion yen. Mistaken economic policies also forced Japan into an unneeded recession with its dreadful toll in bankruptcies and suicides. If Japan's economy today is finally making a muted recovery, that is due mainly to China, a nation Koizumi has gone out of his way to antagonize, and retirees drawing down on surplus savings.
In any normal democracy the opposition parties would have had a field day with these mistakes. Ads showing in clear statistical detail the government's failures to meet pledged targets for cutting borrowing would have been daily fodder in the print and TV media.
As for postal-service privatization, almost anyone who saves or transfers money should know that the post office system is far cheaper and better than private enterprise. Indeed, much of the pressure for privatization comes from the banks and others unable to compete. The system also provides an invaluable service in mobilizing some of Japan's surplus savings for government use. So why the silence on this issue too?
One answer is that blunt attacks based on cold facts and dry figures do not go down well here. Audiences prefer the warm and fuzzy -- areas where Koizumi excels. Those campaign cars circling the streets saying "Vote for me. I am healthy, willing and fighting a good fight" are examples. No logical explanation of specific policies is needed.
True, part of Koizumi's electoral support was logical and deserved. He has done much to create a new and better image for his Liberal Democratic Party. Women have been promoted. Decision-making has been centralized somewhat. Factions have been undermined, and with them the former reliance on dubious funds and old boy connections.
The downside though is that we now have a Thatcherite top-down regime where anyone who disagrees is instantly purged or demoted. Indeed, some are even beginning of use the word "Hitleresque" to describe the Koizumi approach. Those purged are quickly condemned as backward-looking heretics deserving of electoral assassination when in fact many of those "heretics" know much more about policies than the immature acolytes flocking to Koizumi's feet.
In one Tokyo electorate, a rather lightweight but not-unattractive lady with a record of changing parties according to the political wind of the day was sent in very successfully to "assassinate" Koki Kobayashi, a veteran politician with a firm understanding of the economy and Koizumi's mistakes. The media loved it. Koizumi's claim to be the Galileo of Japanese politics may not be entirely megalomania -- but it is getting close.
Especially worrying is the collapse of Japan's main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan. It was offering programs more reformist than much of what Koizumi was proposing. But somehow the Teflon-coated Koizumi couldn't be painted into a corner as antireformist.
True, the DPJ itself was also to blame. From the start it was a haphazard collection of rightwing refugees from the LDP and leftwing refugees from the former Socialist Party, and the party has ended up simply mirroring most LDP policies, with slight differences in emphasis.
Much of the problem goes back to yet another "reform" -- the 1993 replacement of Japan's traditional multiseat electorate system with single-seat electorates. The aim was to encourage a two-party system with elections fought on the basis of policies rather than personalities -- ideally with a leftwing or liberal alternative to the rightwing and conservative LDP. But in Japan's largely nonideological society that was not easy to achieve.
Parties on the left offering truly alternative policies have been largely emasculated by the single-seat system. Recommendations that the Australian preference voting system be introduced, which allows smaller parties to survive and influence policies even under a single seat system, got nowhere.
Where does Japan go now? Even if Koizumi breaks his promise to stand down in a year's time, the scene is not totally bleak. The economy will probably survive till then. And Koizumi is very much a person of instinct. He can be obstinate even when his instincts push him in a wrong direction -- for example his mistaken decision to entrust economic policy to the U.S.-influenced supply-side, slash and burn privatization economist Heizo Takenaka. But he can also be surprisingly flexible at times.
The instinct that led him to make a surprising visit to Pyongyang in 2002 and seek normalization of relations with North Korea was a good example, even if the LDP hardliners were able later to sabotage his efforts. Now that he fully dominates his formerly faction-ridden party there could be more surprises.
(This article appeared in the September 21, 2005 issue of The Japan Times)