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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
September 25, 2006

Abe - Popular but Untested Leader with Vague Political Agenda

Next prime minister hopes to restore pride Japan lost as result of World War II, do away with negative legacies of occupation

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

On the eve of the birth of a new government to be led by a prime minister who has been virtually predetermined, Japanese politics, or Japan as a nation, for that matter, seems to be finding itself in a strange air of suspension that is both upbeat and weary, snug and unsettling. Japanese people are committing themselves to a political leader whose platform aims at a "beautiful country" that "every Japanese can be proud of," vague but fitting slogans amid the prevailing national mood.

What is adding to this sense of uncertainty tinged with some skepticism is the unknown quantity of Shinzo Abe, 51, chief cabinet secretary, who is certain to be elected as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party despite never really being tested in his political career.

Yet Abe enjoys, both within his party and in opinion polls, an overwhelming lead in popularity over the two other contenders. This is disturbing to some when they think of how poorly the substance of his policies has been rated. His ascent to power appears strangely void of genuine blessings.

So the question is: why has Abe emerged as such a formidable candidate for the top post? One explanation is the single-seat constituency (or first-past-the-post) electoral system introduced in 1996, in which the popularity of the party leader sways voters. This contrasts to the multiseat constituency system that supported competing factions within the LDP. So once Abe began to build solid popularity with the public, there was an avalanche-like move among the 403 LDP legislators to side with him. These law-makers are eligible to vote in the party presidential election, along with the 300 votes based on balloting by lay party members.

But this fails to explain his popularity with the public in the first place. He has no track record of surviving steely struggles for power, unlike Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who sought to engage in constant battles with perceived enemies within his own party - those who opposed his reform agenda, for instance - to keep himself afloat.

Besides his princely looks, Abe's credentials are: his father, who came very close to grabbing the post of prime minister but failed because of poor health; his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was fiercely nationalistic at heart; a hawkish stance against North Korea on the abduction issue that, above all, made him highly popular.

It should be noted that another LDP presidential contender, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, is also a grandson of a former prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida.

On most issues Abe still sounds rather vague and uncommitted. He stresses that he will work to make Japan a "beautiful country" in which people can take pride. He says he will be a "fighting politician" and counsels his countrymen to be ready to make sacrifice for their country if need be. But he scarcely clarifies what he means by "beautiful country," let alone what he will fight against and how.

Koizumi's blessing

Nobody denies that Abe is a product of the five-and-a-half years of the Koizumi government. One of his strengths, in fact, is the blessing of Koizumi himself, who obviously groomed Abe as his successor.

Koizumi is stepping down amid high approval ratings, which have averaged around 50% throughout his time in office, a marvelous record in the recent history of Japanese politics. His final standing was 64% in a Mainichi newspaper poll. Koizumi's era has been unusual in the history of postwar Japanese politics under the conservative rule.

The source of Koizumi's popularity is his accommodation of nationalistic sentiments (as symbolized by his Yasukuni Shrine visits), reform appeal (he pushed to privatize the postal services) and realism about Japan's alliance with the U.S. (he sent troops to Iraq). All of these issues helped push his approval ratings up after he stood up for them in the face of strong skepticism and considerable opposition.

Whenever this happened, the media wondered why he was so popular, even with people whom they supposed would end up being victimized by a particular policy. For example, his market-oriented economic policy undermines social welfare and hurts those in weaker sectors of the economy. News outlets were also at a loss about why Koizumi's supposedly reckless Yasukuni Shrine visit on Aug. 15 this year, which people feared would have devastating consequences, instead raised his popularity. Indeed, in opinion polls before Aug. 15, most people expressed opposition to the visit.

So there is a considerable gap between media perceptions of the political mood and the public's response. Koizumi's appeal undoubtedly stems from his nationalistic assertiveness and image as a rule-breaker.

As a rule-breaker, he was enthusiastically received by the electorate as he declared his resolve to knock down his own Liberal Democratic Party, which to the public was a faction-ridden, corrupt, ineffectual political machine linked to various special interests. People were losing faith with the old politics represented by the LDP.

Koizumi declared war against apologists and defenders of the old politics within his own party and won. His enemies were not the opposition parties, and his battle with old-guard politicians in his own party under the slogan of "reform" made clear the essential structure of the Japanese political world: Real opposition comes from inside the ruling party, and the so-called opposition parties are essentially marginalized.

Mood of the nation

It is in this situation and mood that the nation welcomes Abe as prime minister. As a self-described "fighting politician," who is he going to fight, and for what? Of course, enemies within remain, poised for a comeback, but a more likely scenario is a battle with Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Ozawa himself is a former LDP heavyweight and an experienced fighter - who is flexing his muscles for a showdown with Abe. (Ozawa's disadvantage is considered to be his image, that of an overbearing, old-style infighter.)

If Abe's agenda for the nation is still vague and lacks specifics, one thing that is clear is his call for regaining the pride that the nation lost as a result of the war. Liquidation of what he regards as the negative legacy of the postwar occupation that has permeated Japanese society over the past six decades is what he has in mind. This is evident in his proposal for action on rewriting the postwar Constitution and changing the Fundamental Law on Education, perceived as another symbol of the postwar excesses of permissiveness and protection of individual rights.

This inevitably suggests an inclination to accommodate nationalistic sentiment on the rise as manifest from a recent phenomenal bestseller titled "Kokka no Hinkaku" (Dignity of Nation) by Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, which resonates with Abe's own book, "Utsukushii Kuni e" ("Toward a Beautiful Country").

(Originally appeared in the September 18, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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