07/30/2007, 00.00
JAPAN
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Election defeat marks Abe’s political future

by Pino Cazzaniga
Although he might keep his job and has enough seats to govern, the prime minister’s ability to govern will be conditioned by the poll results. Foreign capitals, where Abe was seen in a more positive light, are concerned.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – A few days before the vote a journalist, expecting a devastating result in yesterday’s elections, had said that Abe was on the brink of disaster. Most analysts agree that his party’s huge defeat will mark the political future of his administration.

The election of half of the upper house seats (House of Councillors) saw the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffer its worst defeat since it was founded in 1955, winning only 37 seats against 60 for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who heads the LDP, acknowledged the defeat and took responsibility.

In similar cases in the past the prime minister would resign. It happened in 1998 when then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto stepped down after his party suffered major losses in upper house elections. Mr Abe has decided instead to break with the unwritten rule.

“I want to fulfill my responsibility to proceed with reform to build the nation. This is my task,” he said. “I want to continue in my duties as prime minister.”

When he took office last September Abe’s popularity was at 70 per cent. On the eve of the elections it had plummeted to less than 30 per cent

Making Japan a ‘beautiful nation’ was how he described his mission, but unfortunately many of his cabinet members were far from that.

In December 2006 Genichiro Sata, state minister in charge of administrative reform, had to quit as a result of a scandal over falsified political fund reports.

Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide in May over misused political funds.

Abe took responsibility for their action because he had appointed them, but Matsuoka’s successor Norihiko Akagi found himself involved in his own political funding scandal.

Making matters worse Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa had a bout of foot-in-the-mouth disease when he called women ‘baby-giving machines'.

And just two weeks before the poll Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma was forced to step down for saying that the Nagasaki atomic bomb was necessary to hasten the end of the war.

But Abe’s worst headache and the main cause for his defeat was the Social Insurance Agency scandal in which the pension records for 50 million people were lost.

DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa took the bungled pension records scandal and ran with it as his main election issue. He won, too.

Abe, the first Japanese premier born after the Second World War, is a good and honest politician, but he lacks his mentor’s and predecessor’s, Junichiro Koizumi, determination and political acumen. Today’s Japanese are more interested in bread and butter issues than in any idealism that a beautiful Japan might elicit.

Heads are already rolling following the LDP’s defeat. The party’s Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa has offered to resign. Mikio Aoki, head of the LDP's upper house caucus and the party’s eminence grise, indicated he, too, would step down.

Although he said he would not resign partly as a result of pressures from Nakagawa, Abe cannot avoid changing people in both the party’s leadership and in his cabinet.

Having expressed willingness to work with the winning party, an inevitable decision under the circumstances, Abe will still have many obstacles to overcome it he wants to make it work, not the least being party members who might not agree with him over upper hose cohabitation.

In theory he can still govern because with its coalition partner Komeito (linked to Buddhist association Soka Gakkai) the LDP control the lower house. Not so in the upper house where the main opposition party now gets to name the next speaker.

Abe’s defeat worries foreign capitals because Japan remains an economic powerhouse that must be reckoned with.

Despite a reputation as a strongly nationalist politician, Abe had been able to shed that image and project the aura of an international statesman.

In visiting China and South Korea just a few weeks after taking office and the Philippines and Indonesia later on, he was able to make Japan a more acceptable regional player than at any time in the last 100 years. China had in fact reciprocated with a state visit by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Generally speaking, his actions and style have been a far cry from those of his predecessor, Junichiro Koisumi, who had widened the gap between Japan and its neighbours with his annual visits to the Yakusuni Shrine, the symbol of Japan’s militarism.

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