|Koizumi commits political
J Sean Curtin
After weeks of fierce
political infighting within the governing Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP), Japan's Upper House of
parliament has decisively rejected the flagship
postal privatization bills of Prime
Koizumi, by 125 to 108 votes.
the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito,
hold a majority in the 242-seat upper chamber,
many members of the fractious LDP joined the
opposition to vote down the crucial bills, which
were a vital component of Koizumi's reform
The humiliating defeat led
Koizumi to call a snap general election, probably
for September 11, which opinion polls indicate the
LDP will find extremely difficult to win, and may
herald a seismic shift in Japanese politics. The
failure of the postal bills also probably marks
the end of Koizumi's political career. Even if the
LDP retains power, the desperately divided party
is highly unlikely to re-nominate a prime minister
who attempted political suicide.
is believed to have called the election to test
the public's view of his administration. LDP
sources said the party would not endorse party
members who voted against the bills, a move that
may force rebels to form their own party.
The rejected bills formed the centerpiece
of the prime minister's structural reform agenda,
but have faced intense resistance not just from
the opposition parties, but more significantly
from within the LDP. In fact, the party is so
bitterly divided over the issue that one of its
lawmaker, Yoji Nagaoka, committed suicide after
heated confrontations over the measures.
Since the Lower House narrowly passed the
plans on July 5, Koizumi had been fighting an
increasingly uphill struggle to gain the support
of LDP members in the Upper House. He has
constantly warned that the bills' failure in the
higher chamber would represent a vote of
no-confidence against his cabinet, forcing him to
dissolve the more powerful Lower House for a snap
Since becoming prime
minister in April 2001, Koizumi has frequently
pledged he would either reform the political
system or bring down the LDP. He now looks to have
hit the self-destruct button, much to the dismay
of LDP lawmakers who fear they may lose power in
the snap election.
Former prime minister
Yoshiro Mori, former LDP deputy president Taku
Yamasaki, Internal Affairs and Communications
Minister Taro Aso and several other key political
LDP figures frantically pleaded with Koizumi not
to initiate a snap election, but Koizumi could not
be deterred. He even threatened to dismiss any
member of the cabinet who opposed his decision,
forcing at least one member to resign.
Koizumi sees dissolving the Lower House at
an extremely inopportune time for the LDP as the
only means he has to punish the anti-reformers
within the LDP and renew the political system.
Others interpreted the move as his way of
committing political suicide out of despair over
the failure of his life-long ambition to privatize
the postal system.
Japan Post is a giant
with about US$3 trillion in assets, including the
world's biggest deposit-taking institution, and
has nearly 25,000 offices and 260,000 employees.
The bills would have split Japan Post into four
units under a state-owned holding company in 2007.
Insurance and savings businesses were to have been
sold off by 2017.
The yen and Japanese
share prices fell on Monday when the results of
the vote were known. The currency regained its
losses, however, and the Nikkei share average
later traded in positive territory.
Koizumi cannot dissolve the Upper House,
but if the opposition gains control of the more
powerful lower chamber, Upper House LDP members
will find themselves in effective opposition with
no prospect of cabinet seats or other posts.
The main consequences of a snap Lower
House election are likely to: reduce the number of
LDP lawmakers in the Diet - parliament, terminate
Koizumi's reign as prime minister, give the
opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) a good
chance of gaining power, deepen internal LDP
divisions, possibly splitting the party, and kill
Koizumi's long-cherished dream of postal reform.
Even if the LDP scrapes back into power,
the divisive postal plans are likely to be shelved
for the sake of party unity, and if the opposition
wins, it has vowed to kill the plans.
While some see the situation as an
ignominious end for one of postwar Japan's
longest-serving and most popular leaders, Koizumi
seems to view his actions as a way of going out in
a blaze of glory.
Under nearly all
scenarios, both Koizumi and the LDP wind up as big
Opposition in a good shape
Koizumi became prime minister in April
2001, and quickly used his personal popularity to
take the LDP to a landslide victory in the July
2001 Upper House election and then later to a more
modest win in the November 2003 Lower House
election, which also witnessed impressive
opposition gains. As Koizumi's popularity has
steadily waned, the opposition has become
Party of Japan displayed its growing electoral
appeal by winning more seats than the LDP in the
July 2004 Upper House election, even though the
LDP retained its majority in the chamber with the
help of its coalition partner, New Komeito, which
won 10 seats. Koizumi's current predicament
partially stems from the LDP's slim majority in
the upper chamber.
A recent survey by the
highly regarded Shukan Bunshun magazine suggested
that if an election were held in September it
would hand the DPJ a solid majority and reduce the
number of LDP lawmakers to below the 200 mark from
the current 237. The results of recent Tokyo
municipal elections also underlined the DPJ's
ability to attract vital floating voters, who are
normally the key element in winning Japanese
elections. Political momentum is clearly with the
Not surprisingly, the DPJ is
relishing the prospect of a snap election and last
Friday its secretary general, Tatsuo Kawabata,
gleefully summed up party feeling, "If the Lower
House is dissolved, we will take it as the chance
of a lifetime, and say 'thank-you'."
Smaller opposition parties, which in the
past have split the anti-LDP vote, have also made
things easy for a DPJ victory this time around.
The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) recently
decided to reduce the number of candidates it
fields, making more constituencies two-horse
LDP-DPJ races, a situation that often favors the
DPJ. The Social Democratic Party is also likely to
put up fewer candidates than in the previous poll,
further boosting DPJ prospects.
significant factor in the DPJ's favor is that the
polls indicate that postal privatization is not
considered a key issue among ordinary voters,
suggesting that Koizumi does not have a vital
campaign issue around which to rally the
electorate to his side.
polls indicate the public is concerned about
Japan's poor ties with China and South Korea,
which have been severely strained since Koizumi
started visiting the controversial Yasukuni
shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals along
with the country's war-dead.
will probably be officially announced August 30,
and the poll most likely be held on Sunday
September 11. The law stipulates an election must
be held within 40 days of dissolution.
Lower House vote fatally weakened
Ever since the Lower House narrowly
approved the postal bills on July 5, the LDP has
been in a state of severe crisis. Despite a
comfortable majority in the Lower House, the
postal bills were only approved by a mere five
ballots in a truly cliff-hanger vote.
total of 35 LDP lawmakers rebelled against
Koizumi, the largest number since the 37-vote
revolt against former prime minister Kiichi
Miyazawa in 1993, a rebellion which split the LDP
and handed victory to the opposition in the
subsequent election. Such a large-scale uprising
in the LDP is rare, indicating that momentum was
clearly running against Koizumi and signaling that
the LDP could be about to break apart, as it did
Koizumi tried to put a brave face
on the situation, but the sheer narrowness of
result, and the much higher than expected LDP
rebellion, substantially weakened him. When he
appeared in public over the weekend he had the air
of a weary condemned man. As the Upper House
result was announced he sat grim-faced.
LDP may split
and Shizuka Kamei, two heavyweight LDP
arch-enemies of Koizumi, organized the Lower House
revolt and promised to defeat the measures in the
Upper House, which Kamei described as "round two".
This forced Koizumi to declare that he would take
a rejection of the bills by the upper chamber as a
vote of no confidence in his administration and
call an election. In effect, he put a revolver to
the collective LDP head and threatened to pull the
Horiuchi and Kamei called
Koizumi's bluff, but they may also turn out the
losers, as in past elections anti-reform LDP
lawmakers have suffered greater poll setbacks than
Kamei is particularly
vulnerable after a member of his faction, Yoji
Nagaoka, committed suicide after he was put under
intense politically pressure for supporting
Koizumi in the Lower House. Fifty-four-year-old
Nagaoka hanged himself following heated
confrontations with Kamei faction members over the
postal privatization plan.
The LDP is
currently so riven over the issue that those
lawmakers who opposed Koizumi may break away to
form their own party, especially if the LDP
leadership carries out its threat of refusing to
endorse Lower House rebels in the election.
Many of the LDP postal privatization
rebels depend on the state-run postal system as a
solid vote-gathering machine in their
constituencies, where local post office chiefs
often act as reliable vote-gatherers during
election campaigns. This bond lies at the heart of
the fierce opposition to privatization proposals
and the forces it generates may rip the LDP apart.
The prospects for both Koizumi and the LDP
do not look good, while the DPJ's star is rising.
J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow
at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global
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