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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 09:49 08/03/2007
August 2, 2007

Implications of Prime Minister Abe's Election Defeat

Toshihiko KINOSHITA (Professor, Waseda University)

Why was the ruling party represented by Prime Minister Abe lost so badly in the Upper House election? The reason seems quite obvious, if we compare Mr. Abe with former Prime Minister Koizumi in terms of leadership and commitment as the head of the state. Whereas no one failed to see Mr. Koizimi's seriousness in reforming Japan's public sector and bureaucracy (here, I am not mentioning his overly nationalistic diplomatic policy), very few people are appreciative and, in fact, many people are critical of Mr. Abe's handling of the recent Pension fiasco and also dealing with the politics-and-money problem surrounding his Cabinet members. In particular, Mr. Abe has never realized how serious a problem the pension mixed-up really is from a layman's standpoint, and only said that the problem would be resolved within a year, which is out of question by the business standard. In any case, it has become clear to the Japanese public that Prime Minister Abe is not able to deal with crisis situations and, therefore, cannot be trusted as their leader.

Many observers, especially foreign critics, seem quite pessimistic about Japan's politics and economy in the foreseeable future. This is mainly because the voters' rejection of Mr. Abe's leadership has not yet lead to the emergency of a better leader, and might well create a political vacuum or even chaos in a political transition period, which could last as long as two years until the general Lower House election in 2009. No one is yet to be ready and willing to succeed Mr. Abe as the prime minister within the ruling coalition, and also the fact that "no" to Mr. Abe and his party does not necessarily mean "yes" to Mr. Ozawa as Japan's prime minister. What makes things even worse is the recent resolution by the U.S. congress asking for Japanese government's official apology on what they call the "comfort women" or "sex slavery" issue. This will surely damage the Abe administration.

It is my opinion, however, that we do not have to be too pessimistic about the future course of Japan even though political uncertainty itself is a very negative factor for sure. First of all, Mr. Abe's defeat is likely to reduce the influence of right-wing conservative advisors to him over his rather divisive policies such as constitutional revision, collective defense, moral education, etc. These issues, however important, should be and will probably be handled more carefully, not to polarize the public's opinions, but rather to encourage consensus and compromises in the aftermath of the election defeat of conservative politicians. Hopefully, right-wing hawks will also be more cautious in expressing their extreme views on such sensitive issues as the "comfort women" and other "history issues." In the meantime, the government could focus on more urgent economic issues such as the pension and health care problems.

Second, Mr. Abe and Mr. Ozawa surely have many disagreements, but there is one thing that they would agree on. That is to maintain Japan's close relationship with the US. Although Prime Minister Abe has sometimes irritated the US government and the American public by emphasizing a break from the "post-war regime" under the American influence, he realizes how critical the good relationship with the US is for the future of Japan in the Asia Pacific region, particularly North-East Asia under high tension.. By the same token, Mr. Ozawa has long been known as one of the most pro-American politicians in Japan, and will try to maintain that image as much as he can, although he might as well criticize Mr. Abe's pro-American (rather pro-Bush) stance for political purposes. His political slogan has been to achieve a good balance between the U.S. and Asia, which most Japanese agree with. Mr. Ozawa and his party, like Mr. Abe, have never denied Japan's global role, especially on such issues as environmental policies, energy saving and human resource development in the world and in Asia in particular. He should be more responsible as far as his next target is to assume the seat of the prime minister.

Third, the Japanese economy will continue to grow steadily in the foreseeable future, despite the possible interruption of reform measures due to political uncertainty. The current revival of the Japanese economy is mainly owing to the efforts made by private businesses, rather than the government's stimulative policies, and this trend is likely to continue for some time to come. So, there is no reason why one has to be overly pessimistic about the future course of the Japanese economy, although the government might not function well in terms of economic policies. After all, in this age of rapid globalization, a nation's economy is more influenced by what is happening in the global economy, such as the high growth performance of the BRICs, than by domestic political events such as the election defeat of the incumbent prime minister.

In conclusion, we should remain cautiously optimistic about the future course of Japan, although it is inevitable to face confusions and chaos at least politically for the time being in the aftermath of the historic defeat of the ruling coalition. The underlying conditions for Japan's political and economic activities seem to be firm and sound, especially in terms of Japan's relationship with the US as well as the global economy. It is likely that optimism will prevail in the private sector, in spite of some pessimism in Japan's political field.

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