They cannot get over him. In a sense we all cannot.
Koizumi Jun'ichiro is the "except for" of Japanese prime ministers. Except for Koizumi, no prime minister in the last quarter century has served even 3 years in office. Except for Koizumi, the popularity of prime ministers has followed an inexorable downward course. Except for Koizumi, no Liberal Democratic Party prime minister figured out how to tame the factions, shrug off the responsibility for losses and take credit for victories.
Of course, Koizumi reigned at a special time. The economies of Europe and the United States, super-charged by too loose monetary policy, sucked in imports from East Asia, which, through the invisible hand of the supply chain, redounded to the benefit of this blessed land. Privatization was a good word and the low hanging fruit of structural reform was ripe for the picking.
However, it was Koizumi's ability to dominate public discussion that still seems to haunt the political classes. Koizumi could utter ostensible nonsense -- "I am here to destroy the LDP. So a vote for the LDP is a vote for its destruction" -- and the public would buy it.
Not only would the voters buy the Koizumi line; it took very little time for Koizumi to get them to buy it. Back in 2006, I tossed out a brief note on an interesting trio of graphs published in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun's evening edition of 22 August 2006 (Link). It is worthwhile to take a look at these graphs once again.
The top graph shows the movement of public opinion as regards the dispatch of Self Defense Forces to Iraq. In December 2003, about 33% of those polled were in favor of the dispatch with around 53% opposed. By February of 2004, the 20 percentage point gap had evaporated; equal percentages of the voters were in favor and opposed to the dispatch.
The second graph shows the popularity of a dissolution of the Diet over the House of Councillors' rejection of the postal reform bill. In July of 2005, slightly more than 20% of those polled were in favor of a dissolution over the issue, while a whopping 60%+ were opposed. Koizumi went ahead with the dissolution anyway. Within a month, percentages had shifted by 30 points each way, with over half those polled supporting the dissolution and only slightly above 30% opposed.
The third graph shows the shift, again over a single month's time, in public support for Koizumi making good on his 2001 promise to visit Yasukuni Shrine on the August 15 end-of-war anniversary. In July of 2006, over 50% of those polled did not support the visit, while just under 30% were in favor. By the time of Koizumi's visit, the percentages had reversed, with just over 30% opposing the visit and just under 50% supporting it.
I have no inside information confirming my guess, but Koizumi fetishism, with a dash of "learning from the Aso Taro experience," offers an explanation for Prime Minister Noda's otherwise ridiculous decision to dissolve the Diet. If one believed that one could move public opinion simply by displaying a flamboyant decisiveness -- and one furthermore believed that Aso Taro had, by choosing to delay an election he had been expected to call immediately after taking over as prime minister (due to a little problem in the financial markets in the fall of 2008...), doomed his party to an electoral wipeout in 2009 -- then why not, in an atypically showy fashion, confront Abe Shinzo with an immediate dissolution offer during the live national broadcast of Party Leader Debate Time?
Unfortunately for Prime Minister Noda, public opinion polls show (Link) that conjuring up a majority will take more than just the planting of a flag and the swearing one will defend the ground one is standing on. Pledges have to be credible. Koizumi's were because he chose to stand and fight on issues where he had a record of supporting change. Noda, because he had been choosing his issues out of a hat at the last minute, has no credibility. No one knows whether his stated desire to fight is genuine or not. Noda and the DPJ are failing to win the support of non-affiliated voters even when the DPJ's opponent is an Abe Shinzo-led LDP.
Noda and the DPJ have given the voters short shrift. Though the voters might find it difficult to explain themselves, they are right at taking offense at the prime minister's facile homage to Koizumi's flash. Koizumi's views, though they were contrary to the conventional wisdom, had at least been tested and honed over the decades. Koizumi never staked his or the country's fate on values no one knew he had.
The DPJ releases its election manifesto today. Expectations are for a mild document, a simple restatement of the cautious policies of the Noda administration. Prepare to hear a lot of noise about the contents of the manifesto, followed by a dull thud as the release fails to move any hearts.
If elections were decided on the fundamental reasonableness of the campaign promises, the DPJ would win big in December.
Elections are not just about a list of promises, however. Elections are also about leverage -- that which the party has on others and that which the electorate has on the individual politician. Noda and his fellow travelers in the DPJ offer neither a sense they know the way out of legislative gridlock nor that they care about their constituents.
Voters may still vote for the DPJ district candidate or for the party as the least-worst option -- if the voters bother to show up at all. Only 61% respondents to NHK's weekend public opinion poll swore they would going to the polls on Election Day.
Pushing voters into the voting stall -- and stimulating them into feeling excited about voting -- these the Noda-led DPJ must do. For the appeal to stick, the Noda DPJ must convince voters that its promises are durable commitments.
Good luck with that.
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