09/19/2005, 00.00
Send to a friend

Behind Koizumi's victory lies the desire of the Japanese people to change the way of governing

by Pino Cazzaniga

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The stunning victory of Junichiro Koizumi in the political election is underpinned by a decision of the Japanese to change their way of governing. Many analysts do not hesitate to define the event as "historical": the vote gave an overwhelming victory to the Premier's party, the Liberal Democratic Party, which was returned to power with 84 seats more than it had before the election (from 212 to 296). The ballot was also a humiliating defeat for the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) which lost 64 seats (from 177 to 113). Since the Lower House has 480 seats, it turns out that Koizumi's party regained the absolute majority it had lost 15 years ago.

Election and epochs

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, said: "Koizumi was an audacious proponent of reform who merited this victory. I admire the courage he showed." The opinion of the Australian premier is shared by representatives of other governments too.

There is a Japanese proverb which says: "The nail which sticks out must be hammered back" which, translated into more understandable terms, means: in Japanese society there is no place for strong personalities. The principle of consensus and compromise dominates: group unity is the main value. Koizumi had the courage to violate this principle. Faced with the choice between the harmony of his party and the realization of privatization of the Postal System, which he held to be an essential step for a wider reform process, he did not hesitate to put his convictions first.

An audacious decision, but not a reckless one because it was based on an accurate reading of the signs of the times: he intuited that people, especially in metropolitan areas, had reached a point of political maturity and were ready for reform.

In 2001, the headquarters of the LDP, under pressure from nearly all provincial districts, was constrained to make Koizumi president of the party and automatically, prime minister. Since then he has committed himself to bringing about privatization of the Postal Services. Last August, 37 members of his party tried to "hammer back the nail" by contributing to the failure of the draft bill in the senate. Koizumi responded by dissolving the Lower House, calling a snap election and excluding rebels from running as candidates. In their place he introduced individuals, including some women, known to the public for their reformist tendencies and other merits. The rebels who had been thrown out called them "assassins"… but 80% of them triumphed.

Change or exchange?

Brad Grosserman, director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, wrote: "When Koizumi stepped into the post [of premier], he promised either to renew the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) or to destroy it. He ended up by destroying the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), ideologically reformist." The opinion of the analyst, if read superficially, implies that the reforming premier gave an absolute majority back to that conservative party which for decades had opposed reform and was not capable of implementing it.

But in this case, numbers should be evaluated rather than counted. The protagonist of this impressive victory is not only Koizumi but also the populations of the big cities. And even here there was a turnaround: so far, the secure electoral base for the LDP has been the agricultural environment and not the city one. The premier knew how to conquer it.

These elections were a duel between the president of the LDP Koizumi, and the President of the DPJ, Katsuya Okada. Both convinced of the necessity of reform, they differ in ways of reaching it. The first chose a change in the way of governing; the second opted for a change of government, that is, alternation of power.

The slogan of Koizumi was simple: "who votes for privatization of the postal service votes in favour of reform; who votes against is against reform". Okada, meanwhile, published a manifesto with a detailed programme with a view to alternation. He was in error because people do not care who governs but how they govern. A treatise of political philosophy annoyed them, the presentation of a concrete programme already under way, attracted them.

One does not discuss a construction project when a house is burning. The people of the city were well informed about the enormity of public debt and the precariousness of the pension system. It is also aware that the Japanese postal services are the largest financial company of the nation: there is a deposit of 370 trillion yen in their cash tills, which so far the governing party has drawn from for public constructions of dubious value, but useful to win votes. Besides, this government "firm" must pay the wages of 280,000 employees who work in 124,000 post offices. By offering the management of this enterprise to private businessmen, the money would have been used in a more efficient manner and expenses would have been hugely diminished. Moreover, the system of government of the "steel triangle" (collusion between the LDP, bureaucracy and construction enterprises), had become a source of corruption and political paralysis. The people of the city, placing their confidence in Koizumi, opted for a change and not an exchange of government.

Reactions in Asia

Reactions in Asia, with the exception of China and Korea, were positive. A columnist of the daily The Strait Times in Singapore wrote: "The great advantage which the Japanese prime minister gained in the election will facilitate the path of socio-economic reform which he holds as the key to reinvigorating the nation… This immense electoral victory is a boom even for Japan's commercial partners and in the first place for China."


But from China, there was official silence: no message of congratulations or any comments from the government. Meanwhile, popular media and internet sites were eager to speak ill of the result. One poster read: "Koizumi's victory shows that (in Japan) the current of the extreme right is becoming ever stronger. There is no doubt that this victory puts Japan on the road to self-destruction and ruin."

The reactions of South Korea are ambivalent. President Roh Moo-hun immediately sent a congratulatory message to Koizumi: after noting the positive evolution in Japan's leadership, he expressed the hope that relations between the two nations "will develop, geared towards the future and in a constructive manner". The phrase is diplomatically important because it repeats to the letter what he had said during his first visit as president in Japan. Later, perhaps to adapt himself to the anti-Nipponic atmosphere prevalent among large strata of the population, he took to highlighting the unhappy past.

The spokesman of the URI party which enjoys the majority wrote: "We nourish the hope that the vast mandate offered by Japan, our neighbour, to its leader to realise social and economic reforms will have a positive impact on the reform process which our administration asks for." This was courageous acknowledgement coming from a party which was originally populist.

Naturally, the government and especially the media did not hold back from expressing anxiety and discontent for Koizumi's success, especially because of his repeated visits to Yasukuni, the Shintoist shrine held to be a symbol of Japan's anti-Asian nationalism.

Walking towards the future

Analysts say that embedded in the LDP victory is the temptation to return to a one-party government. Fortunately, the triumphant premier has already showed he knows how to draw profit from the Japanese proverb which says: "the stem of rice with the swollen ear bows down". Soon after his victory, Koizumi re-established the coalition government with the Komeito party, even if he did not to do so because he had enough seats.

Throughout the electoral campaign, the premier talked only about privatisation of the Postal Services. He did this to not to avoid other problems but to get a strong enough mandate to confront and to resolve it.

Regarding foreign policy, the most difficult and also the most urgent problem regards relations with China. "The tense relations between the two east Asian giants can be repaired if the two governments genuinely seek a solution to save face," said Glosserman. In the last months, thanks to initiatives of substance and courageous declarations, the Japanese premier showed he wanted to move in this direction. China and Hu Jintao know this.

Send to a friend
Printable version
See also
Violent anti-Japan demonstrations in Shanghai and Tianjin
Chinese warship on friendly visit to Japan
Tokyo-Seoul, dialogue on certain conditions
Shinzo Abe to inherit Koizumi's reformist mantle
Koizumi's first official visit to Israel


Subscribe to Asia News updates or change your preferences

Subscribe now
“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”