Speculation Over Agenda as Koizumi Wins Mandate

At the headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi smiles as he puts a rosette on the name of an elected party member after the voting of a lower house election on Sept. 11. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP-Getty Images)

In leading his Liberal Democratic Party (L.D.P.) to a landslide win in last week’s Japanese general election, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been handed a mandate to reform his country’s economy and given license to purge antireform members within his own party. Moreover, the transfer of power away from the L.D.P.’s traditional rural base towards a more urbanized Japan has increased speculation of government plans for major structural and constitutional reforms.

The election, fought on the single issue of post office privatization, saw the L.D.P. and its junior coalition partner New Komeito secure a vital two-thirds majority in the 480–seat Lower House. Under Japanese law, the government now has sufficient numbers to override any opposition vote in the Upper House and is expected to reintroduce its legislation for privatization of the banking and postal giant Japan Post, the rejection of which provided the government with a trigger for the early election.

In a highly charged yet carefully orchestrated media campaign, Koizumi captured the imagination of the voting public by handpicking celebrity candidates to stand against the ex-L.D.P. rebels who voted with the Opposition against the government’s postal reforms. Known as “shikoku” (assassins), these high profile candidates were chosen both for their personal loyalty to Koizumi and high media profile, particularly amongst the usually apolitical young urban voters.

Although only nine of the 30 “assassin” candidates eventually won, the prime minister’s emphatic victory allowed him to claim an almost complete triumph over the L.D.P. old guard.

“We destroyed the old L.D.P.,” said a jubilant Koizumi during the election count “and the L.D.P. became like a new party.”

Though praising Koizumi for his win, Japan’s second-largest newspaper Asahi Shimbun warned that the impressive result did not necessarily give the government “carte blanche” for its agenda of reform.

“It is wrong to think that this overwhelming victory means every aspect of Koizumi politics has gained a vote of confidence. That is because the prime minister has hardly spoken about any other policy issue apart from the postal service. The prime minister constantly avoided focusing on issues such as constitutional revision and deadlocked foreign policy. We cannot just give him a carte blanche,” said the paper in its post-election editorial.

Koizumi’s Agenda

By making the sale of Japan Post the sole campaign issue, the mercurial and media savvy Koizumi remained non-committal about his plans for long-term reform and was able to effortlessly deflect Opposition calls for discussion of equally pressing election issues such as pensions, the rapidly ageing Japanese population and the prime minister’s perceived closeness to the White House.

However, Professor Gavin McCormack, of the International Christian University in Tokyo, believes that Koizumi may well attempt to implement wide-ranging neo-liberal structural reforms similar to those carried out in the Britain under Margaret Thatcher and the United States under Ronald Reagan but foresees difficulties ahead in achieving party support for such a radical agenda.

“His real difficulty I think begins when the Postal Services Bill is passed some time in the weeks ahead. That’s the only pledge that he made. He said that this election is just about postal services. But of course that wasn’t true, the election was to … put in place a parliamentary system for the next several years,” said Professor McCormack to the Australian ABC’s The World Today.

“The country faces the huge debts, likelihood of enormous tax increases, diplomatic isolation, huge problems of many kinds, and Koizumi, by manipulating the single issue of the post office in order to get this huge victory in the Diet, [will now] have to try to carry his agenda, constitutional reform, all kinds of drastic changes in the Japanese system. But once he turns to these issues, then the unity that he’s been able to create around the post office is going to disappear. And I suspect that now that he’s got a very substantial majority in the Diet, his need to impose discipline on his own party is going to be extremely difficult.”

One of these likely attempts at drastic economic changes could be reform of the heavily subsidized rural sector. Important trading partners such as the United States and Australia have long criticized Japan for its decades-old policy of providing excessive government subsidies to the inefficient farming sector to protect it from cheaper overseas imports. Farmers though, who constitute an important L.D.P. power base, have long considered rural subsidies sacrosanct in Japan and any attempts to modernize the rural sector may lead to considerable economic hardship and an electoral backlash against the government. Nevertheless, Japan has expressed a willingness to discuss frameworks for free trade agreements with trading partners since the election, a sign that far-reaching rural reform may be on its way.

Along with radical economic reforms, Koizumi is also expected to target constitutional change. The controversial move to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, the post-World War II clause that forbids Japanese troops to engage in war, would allow the government to deploy more troops to overseas trouble spots such as Iraq and play a wider, perhaps more belligerent role in regional and world affairs.

Though revision of Article 9 has the potential to further strain relations with regional rivals such as China, already under pressure due to Koizumi’s contentious visits to the Yasukuni war shrine where war dead are honored, Japan’s ally the United States has welcomed the move as it sees increased Japanese military involvement in the region as acting as a strong counterweight to China’s growing power. China and other regional neighbors such as South Korea nonetheless remain deeply suspicious of a remilitarized Japan.

Typically though, while many analysts are predicting sweeping structural changes in Japan under the new-look L.D.P., their maverick leader has yet to commit to a full parliamentary term despite being at what appears to be the height of his power. The 63-year-old Koizumi, far from outlining his reform agenda for the next parliamentary term, has insisted instead that he will resign from the prime minister’s post in September 2006 when his term as president of the L.D.P. expires thereby giving himself less than a year to implement his reforms.

“My term is until September next year,” he said to reporters. “So I will take full responsibility as prime minister and president of the party. The L.D.P. will carry out the revolution. I would like my successor to prepare for that revolution.”

See also, “Koizumi Risks All in Snap Poll.”