Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Bush Curse Strikes Again?

I. The morning after

Barney Jopson of the Financial Times and Sebastian Moffett of The Asian Wall Street Journal raised the red flag last week. In front-page articles, both sounded the warning that prime minister Koizumi faces a possible setback in the July 11 House of Councillors elections. Both noted that recent dramatic decreases in Koizumi Cabinet and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) popularity will make it difficult for the LDP to meet its electoral goals. Both also found general agreement that in the event of an electoral disappointment, Koizumi will probably survive, though in a severely weakened position.

The PM’s situation is rather more serious than Mr. Jopson and Mr. Moffett were indicating. Indeed, something on the order of a major miracle is necessary over the next few days to prevent Koizumi, LDP secretary-general Shinzo Abe and all the members of the Cabinet from losing their jobs.

II. Oh, for the spring’s sweet song

Two months ago, the prospect of the LDP scoring significant gains in the upcoming elections looked good. The Cabinet’s and the LDP’s approval ratings soared after Koizumi’s trip to Pyongyang. The majority of Japanese saw the reuniting of the Hasuikes and the Chimuras with their children to have been well worth the money, food and empty promises the prime minister had to dish out to Kim Jong-il. Even the failed direct appeal to accused deserter Robert Jenkins was seen by many as a prime ministerial best effort to bring the abductee issue to closure.

Over the past month, however, public opinion has turned sharply against the PM and his party over two issues: one avoidable, one not.

The unavoidable bit of business was the restructuring of the national pension system (kōsei nenkin seido). By definition, reforming the pension system—i.e., raising fees and cutting benefits—is a sure method of cutting short one’s political life. Politicians will do their utmost to try to avoid pension reform. Something, however, had to be done, for the pension system was only a few years from complete collapse, even before facing the demands of the huge post-war baby-boom dankai sedai (the “mass generation”) that will soon reach retirement age.

The already unpopular restructuring effort descended into farce, however, over the system’s other weakness: its lack of an enforcement arm. The pension system is not so much a “system” as “a really good idea you should all participate in.” No one is charged with tracking down scofflaws, so millions of individuals neglect/skip contributing to the general fund. As this spring’s Diet deliberations on plans to restructure the system progressed, a delicious bit of irony emerged—the actress featured in Ministry of Health & Welfare ads denouncing those in arrears on their pension contributions was found to be herself not paying into the system. Serial bloviators in the Diet attacked the actress for her hypocrisy, only to find out that they too were in arrears in their payment. Soon everyone in Nagatacho was poring over his or her own records, discovering that staying in the good graces of pension system was actually damn difficult. Most ridiculously, service in the Cabinet seemed to guarantee gaps in a person’s record of contributions to the national pension scheme.

Much self-inflicted political bloodletting followed, including a great show of contrition by delinquent lawmakers from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) and the resignations of chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda and DPJ leader Naoto Kan. After the bloodbath, however, the ruling coalition of the LDP and the Komeitō proceeded with business as usual, ramming an unrealistic and unpopular pension reform package through the Diet over the objections of the DJP.

The second, avoidable decision was Koizumi’s unilateral pledge to keep the Self Defense Forces (SDF) in Iraq after June 30. According to the dispatch legislation, the mandate of the SDF deployment was coterminous with the mandate of the Coalition Provisional Authority. After June 30 transfer of power, the SDF deployment would no longer have a basis in law. Abandoning Japan’s Iraq deployment on a technicality would have been a blow to Koizumi’s program of transforming Japan into a responsible international power and a trustworthy ally of the United States.

One of the hallmarks of the Koizumi style has been an ability to choose to solve only problems he wants to solve, allowing other problems to solve themselves. During the course of his premiership, this diffident, selective approach to crisis management has driven opponent after opponent into fits of rage. Expressing anger at Koizumi’s pet issues, methods and pacing, however, has always backfired on critics, no matter how legitimate their complaints about Koizumi’s inaction as regards Japan’s deep structural problems. In a sense, Koizumi has thrived through the application of the Serenity Prayer to politics, making the rest of the world look like a bunch of hyperventilating ninnies.

On the eve of the Sea Island Summit, however, Koizumi abandoned his modus operandi of responding to crises with benign neglect. Caught between the immanent end of the CPA and his own inaction on pushing a revision of the dispatch legislation through the Diet, and wrongly sensing a need to present a fait accomplit on Iraq before the other leaders at the summit (he may have felt he needed to give something to George Bush in return for a big, big favor: a presidential pardon for Robert Jenkins), Koizumi possibly extra-constitutionally and definitely with disdain for political etiquette announced that Japan’s Iraq deployment will continue under international command, whatever its form.

Most Japanese are aware that the Diet has suffered steep declines in its power relative the other branches of government in recent years. Many would agree that the Diet’s deliberations are often only so much vapid grandstanding. Some would tell you that a portion of the membership could not match wits with a tatami mat. However, a public aware of the deficiencies of Japan’s parliament may still resent having the power of that body entirely usurped by the prime minister. Decent respect for the forms of representative democracy required that Koizumi at least present his proposals to the Diet—if not for its approval, then at least for its consideration. Instead, he declared the debate over before it had begun. What was worse, the timing of his announcement made it look as though he was a servant of the Americans, not the Japanese people.

Koizumi’s error as regards the SDF’s deployment in Iraq was so huge that even the Asahi Shimbun’s editors could not miss it:

“We should help to rebuild Iraq even if it means picking up the pieces left behind by a wrong war. But such cooperation must be made after going through proper domestic procedures in the Diet and scrutiny by the public. “
- Asahi Shimbun, June 18, 2004

The public response to the government’s two contemptuous decisions has been swift. Cabinet and the LDP support levels fell like stones through water in the last three weeks of June. Support for the DJP, which had been languishing due to the Kan resignation and a pair of scandals earlier in the year that had tarnished its reputation as the “clean” party, skyrocketed.

III. “I will smash the reactionary forces in the LDP”

One of the eternal truths of Japanese postwar politics is that, in the end, the personal popularity of the prime ministers matters little at election time. Japanese politics has been machine politics, with the LDP representing a broad coalition of interests, each of which extends its support in return for advantageous legislation, contracts and cash. As long as each segment of the coalition receives its slice of the LDP’s largesse, the LDP limps to victory, no matter its faults.

The only problem with this eternal truth is that Koizumi has made it his business to break up the LDP’s ties with the its traditional support groups. The Koizumi Cabinet has upset almost all the groups that matter: farmers by promoting free trade, small-and-medium sized company owners by insisting that the banks cut off delinquent borrowers, rural residents by cutting public works spending, seniors by increasing their health costs and doctors and dentists by cutting into their most profitable income streams. Koizumi’s predecessors pitched in too, particularly in forging the alliance with the Komeitō, a decision that cost the party its traditional relations with the other Lotus Sect religious groups.

To whit, the LDP is going into the July 11 elections with its coalition in pieces. Individual politicians in the districts have their own koenkai and traditional local supporters. They may be able to cash in their local IOUs and eke out wins by appealing to their personal relationships with constituents. The national party support system, however, is truly smashed. In its place, many in the party have linked themselves to Koizumi, hoping to profit from his magical ability to float above events.

No one more committed himself more firmly to this transition than Mikio Aoki, the LDP’s leader in the House of Councillors. Aoki split the Hashimoto faction in two at the last LDP presidential election, helping Koizumi drive Aoki’s faction mate and longtime collaborator Hiromu Nonaka out of politics altogether. Aoki made the deal of a political lifetime, betraying his political family and friends, in order to ally himself with Koizumi’s new LDP order. Now instead of rising with Koizumi, he is sinking with him.

It is Aoki who has drawn the line sealing Koizumi’s fate. While Koizumi’s entourage has been suggesting that the Prime Minister can continue in his office even if the LDP loses a few seats, Aoki has set down a firm limit: 51 seats, one more than they hold now, or “the political situation becomes untenable.”

IV. The ugly numbers

 Until a month ago, 51 seats looked like a cakewalk, in a paradoxical way. High public support for Koizumi has only weakly correlated with support for the LDP. While the LDP’s proportional, i.e., party popularity, votes soared in 2001 along with Koizumi’s post-inauguration 80%+ approval ratings, the PM’s personal popularity with the voters did not keep the LDP from losing the overall proportional vote in the 2003 House of Representatives election. Indeed, as a leader who has spent much of his time fighting members of his own party over reforms, it should be remarkable if there is any correlation at all.

Koizumi’s personal popularity seems to have kept the party viable in district elections. Party members in urban or bedroom community districts could claim that even though they were LDP, they were Koizumi’s allies in the fight against the LDP’ reactionary elements. A vote for the urban LDP was a vote for Koizumi and for reform. Conversely, LDP candidates opposed to Koizumi’s reform program could tell their supporters in their districts that only votes for him or her could keep Koizumi’s reformists from joining with the hated Democrats in the destruction of Japan.

It was a lovely double game.

Now, on the eve of the election, even a weak correlation between Koizumi’s and the party’s popularity has the party elders worried. The Cabinet’s support ratings and the Asahi Shimbun’s “Which party do you want to see increasing its representation in the House of Councillors?” indicator have been in lockstep since the winter. Whenever the popularity of the Cabinet has risen, as in the week after Koizumi’s trip to Pyongyand, the proportion of persons saying they want the LDP to win more seats has risen and the number wanting the DJP to win more seats has fallen. Conversely, as the Cabinet support numbers have fallen, the number favoring an LDP increase has fallen and the number favoring a DPJ increase has risen.

Current indications are that around 56 million voters are likely to go to polls on July 11. This may seem a bold prediction given that voting rates have been declining over the last two decades and recent polls have shown a drop in the percentage of persons identifying themselves as “likely voters.” However, this year’s House of Councillors elections are being held in the second week of July, while schools are still in session. Nearly all the voting age population will be at home rather than on holiday. The weather has also been fairly pleasant of late, with neither the oppressive rains of last year nor the unbearable heat of late July 2001.
Proportional Voting

Some general rules of thumb used for estimating the proportional vote:

· For the past several elections, the DPJ and its predecessors have received double the percentage of votes indicated by pre-election polls. LDP vote percentages, on the other hand, have tended to closely track pre-election polling results. Current polls have 18% support for the DPJ and 20% support for the LDP.
· About two thirds of the voters are really upset about pension reform and Iraq dispatch decisions.
· Voters are aware that voting against the LDP means the PM loses his job. Despite Koizumi’s recent overreaching, only a third of the voters want him out.
· The Komeitō has just over 8 million voting followers.
· The Communists and the Socialists have been losing about 15%~20% of their support every election. The Socialists, however, may have finally stabilized under the leadership of Mizuho Fukushima.
· For the past several elections, the voters have used the House of Councillors proportional vote to send the LDP and the Cabinet a message, while using their district votes to perpetuate personal loyalty and patronage relations.

Should 56 million voters turn out to vote on July 11, the final tally of the proportional vote equivalents* should look like this:

Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) 22,200,000
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) 16,000,000
Komeito 8,300,000
Japan Communist Party (JCP) 4,500,000
Socialist Democratic Party (SDP) 3,000,000
Midori no kaigi 800,000
Women’s Party 800,000
Others/spoiled ballots 400,000

* = the tallies combining actual votes for parties with votes for individuals within the parties

With these results, the approximate division of proportional seats available on Sunday will be:

DPJ 21
LDP 14
Komeito 7

District Voting

If the LDP manages to capture 14 seats in the proportional voting, LDP candidates must win 36 contests (an LDP victory is considered a foregone conclusion in a Kagoshima election that the newspapers are counting as separate) to reach the 51 seat minimal standard. With the LDP’s historical near-total dominance of the single-seat districts (28 seats) and a reasonable chance of winning one of the two seats available in the two-seat districts (15 districts with 30 seats), the party in theory could lose all its places in the 3- and 4-seat districts and still clear the 51-seat threshold.

However, a prefecture-by-prefecture look at the party candidate lists throws doubt upon the LDP’s chances of winning 36 seats. The DPJ has chosen to stand up in the district elections, fielding candidates in as many districts as it can, even in hopeless LDP bastions like Fukui and Shimane. In the more competitive districts, the DJP is fielding candidates with reasonable chances of victory, many whom held their own in 2001 when they should have been swept away by the Koizumi tsunami. The DPJ has also been careful in selecting seasoned political pros in their late forties and mid-fifties to contest the seats held by LDP heptagenarians, rather than throwing 35 year-old babies at them as in the past. Finally, with so many voters angry at the PM, angry at the LDP or angry at both, the possibility arises of protest voting extending down to the district level, with the voters returning the otherwise nearly comatose Communists to office in Nagano, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures.

The current distribution of district seats is as follows:

LDP 33
DPJ 22
Komeito 3
Independents 9

Now if every thing goes perfectly for the LDP on July 11, meaning that the LDP wins everywhere it is competitive and the DPJ and Communists lose all contests they could reasonably lose, the results of the district elections would be:

LDP 45
DPJ 22
Komeitō 3
Independents 1

If on the other hand all hell breaks loose and with the voters reject the LDP candidate every district seat where the DPJ or the Communists are competitive, then the results of the district elections could conceivably be:

DPJ 37
LDP 25
Komeitō 3
Independents 1

This would be an extraordinary result, with the LDP winning fewer than 40 seats total. Not even the sensationalist evening sports newspapers have predicted a drop this big, though one has claims the LDP will top out at 41 seats. Despite the national polls indicating a broad anti-LDP mood, district election results depend on friendships, personal vendettas and hidden agendas often not discernable from Tokyo. The breakdown of the LDP’s electoral machine, however, means that is on average the LDP will lose more of the close district contests than win them.

V. Who’s Next?

The obvious next question is should Koizumi resign, who replaces him as LDP party president and prime minister? Former Economics and Industry minister Takeo Hiranuma has declared himself in the running, should Koizumi stumble. Nobody else seems eager for the party presidency at this time nor is visibly mounting a challenge for it.

Hiranuma, however, is a mid-level member of the Kamei faction. He has neither the party seniority nor the organizational muscle to persuade the bulk of the LDP to see the wisdom of his candidacy. Winning over the vast corps of young Hashimoto faction members presents a particularly daunting task. Should the Hashimoto faction balk at Hiranuma’s bid, a compromise candidate, perhaps the quietly ambitious and coldly handsome former foreign affairs minister Masahiko Komura, could emerge to seize the party presidency and the prime ministership.

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