Tale of two allies, Koizumi and Blair
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
After the shock resignation of the leader of Japan's main opposition party,
Naoto Kan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is looking stronger than ever.
The latest opinion survey shows a solid 53 percent approval rating for his
administration, despite deep public misgivings over Japan's involvement in
Iraq. A new NHK poll indicates that 69 percent of Japanese now disapprove of
US policy in Iraq, with just 19 percent saying they support it.
Surprisingly, the controversial conflict has so far failed to weaken
Koizumi's position and in some respects appears to have strengthened it.
However, as the tribulations of British Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly
illustrate, the unstable situation in Iraq can easily destroy the career of
even the most skillful of political leaders.
While most Washington-friendly, pro-war leaders struggle to justify the
increasingly volatile conflict to skeptical electorates, Koizumi seems
strangely immune to most of its corrosive effects. Former opposition
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Kan (who resigned this week in a
pension non-payment scandal) was a bitter opponent of the war, a position
popular among the voters. Even so, he was unable to utilize the issue
effectively against Koizumi, failing to dent the premier's popularity.
How has Koizumi managed to defy political gravity? Can he escape a
Blair-style meltdown in the perilous arena of the United States-led war in
Iraq and its perilous physical rebuilding and political rehabilitation?
Koizumi kept his pants, Blair bare
Ryoji Yamauchi, a political commentator and president of Asahikawa
University, offers some insights. He told Asia Times Online, "Koizumi has
very skillfully exploited a mixture of nationalism and North Korea-phobia to
protect himself from Iraq blowback. For Blair, there is no such cover. He
had to justify his actions with weapons of mass destruction [WMD] threats
that turned out to be false. Koizumi kept his pants, while Blair was
He elaborated, "Koizumi made out that Japan had no real choice but to send
troops to Iraq if we wanted American support in dealing with North Korea.
For Blair, going to war seems to have been an act of faith in [US President
George W] Bush. Koizumi's strategy has been the most successful. Recently,
it enabled him to sidestep the controversy stirred up by the abuse of Iraqis
by the Americans. Koizumi basically told the public that 'this is a terrible
thing, but nothing to do with Japan'. The fact that Japanese troops in Iraq
have barely stepped ... outside their luxury base also reinforces the
impression that the torture of detainees is not Japan's responsibility."
In London, Amnesty International issued a damning report saying the British
army has been killing civilians in Basra, al-Amara, and other areas it
controls in southern Iraq. The report was based on research in February and
March and documents what it calls the intentional shooting of an
eight-year-old girl, among other victims; Britain had said she was shot
accidentally. Torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops also
has been widely reported. In March the Red Cross reported grave violations
against civilians and abuse of prisoners by British troops.
But in Japan, which dispatched troops on a strictly humanitarian mission,
the horrors encountered by combat troops seem far away. Yamauchi said,
"Koizumi has also fired up the passions of neo-conservatives and
nationalists by portraying the dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq as a
matter of national pride. This helps explain why some people support the
dispatch, but oppose American policy in Iraq. The Iraq war has stirred up
some strange emotions in Japan and many people are now questioning our blind
support for America.
"While Japan might emerge more militaristic from Iraq," Yamauchi said,
"Japanese people will certainly be less pro-American."
Best of times for Koizumi, worst for Blair
There are many parallels between the two prime ministers, but as in the best
Charles Dickens novels, destiny has dealt them decidedly different fates.
Prewar, both men were hugely popular within their respective political
realms. In the face of strong domestic opposition, both men were among the
staunchest international supporters of Bush's invasion of Iraq, and the two
are considered some of the US president's closest foreign allies.
Currently, the premiers also face very similar domestic challenges, but as
in an epic novel, their fortunes are now beginning to diverge radically.
While the sun shines on Koizumi, storm clouds gather around Blair, who has
lost his popularity and may soon find himself out of office.
In both countries there is a deep sense of public unease about Iraq policy.
Looming elections will give voters a chance to express their
dissatisfaction. In Japan, Koizumi faces crucial elections in July for the
Upper House of the Diet, or parliament. Early next month, Blair has local
and European elections as well as the mayoral election in London. A bad
result for either leader would substantially weaken his position and might
eventually lead to resignation.
Koizumi's troops may stay, Blair's may go
In London and Tokyo, the situation in Iraq is a dominant theme. The most
recent polls indicate that 55 percent of Britons want their troops pulled
out of Iraq after power is transferred to an interim Iraqi government at the
end of June and just 28 percent want them to stay. In Japan, the most recent
NHK poll indicates that 47 percent of people are against Japanese troops
being deployed in Iraq, while 44 percent support the current dispatch.
For Koizumi this is an astonishingly good position, especially considering
that Japan has a war-renouncing constitution and a pacifist world view.
Lawmakers had to draft a special law in order to dispatch Japanese troops to
For Blair, the opinion surveys are a disaster, revealing the extent of
public opposition to the country's involvement in the conflict. The
difference between the two polls also illustrates how skillfully Koizumi has
managed the situation, while for Blair they underscore his miscalculation
about the strength of British anti-war sentiment.
Koizumi awaits electoral success, Blair awaits defeat
With the main opposition DPJ dumping its leader in the run-up to the July
Upper House elections, it may be difficult for the party to regain the
momentum necessary to mount a serious challenge to Koizumi's governing
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In the recent unified by-elections, which
followed the release of Japanese hostages held in Iraq, the LDP scored a
sweeping victory. A recent poll gave Koizumi a 66 percent approval rating
for his handling of the hostage crisis.
Resolving the hostage issue along with a strong showing in the July
by-elections would indicate that the LDP holds the political initiative,
despite its unpopular Iraq policy. While Koizumi is well positioned to
consolidate his grip on power in the forthcoming elections, his British
counterpart is reading from an entirely different script.
A whole series of recent opinion polls indicate that Blair is on the ropes
over his Iraq policy, which has deeply angered many of his Labour Party's
core supporters. While other domestic issues have caused Blair trouble, it
is widely acknowledged that Iraq has inflicted massive damage on his
The most recent opinion poll gave Blair's party just 32 percent support and
the main opposition Conservatives 36 percent, followed by the smaller
opposition Liberal Democrat Party at 22 percent. The last time Labour sank
so abysmally low in the polls was back in 1987, when Conservative Margaret
Thatcher was prime minister.
Most alarming for Blair, according to the same poll, two in five of his
party's supporters claim they will use the June local and European elections
"to send a message to the government" by either abstaining or switching
their vote. In an attempt to capitalize on the feeling of disillusionment
with Blair, the leader of opposition Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, has
said a vote for his party is a vote against the war. Last year, a similar
strategy catapulted his party to a crushing by-election victory in one of
Labour's safest seats.
If the results are as bad as the polls predict, Blair will have to fight
hard to stay in office. The only electoral success Blair's party is likely
to enjoy next month is in the London mayoral election, where the incumbent,
Ken Livingston, is standing for re-election. However, the independent-minded
Livingston is one of Britain's fiercest opponents of the war. He helped
organize events against Bush when he visited London last year and refused to
meet him. He also famously described Bush as "the greatest threat to life on
this planet that we've most probably ever seen".
Koizumi's leadership safe, Blair's in danger
Within Koizumi's own party, there is currently no figure who could
successfully challenge him for the leadership, a point overwhelming
demonstrated last year, when Koizumi was decisively re-elected as president
of the LDP. For Blair, this also used to be true, but anger about Iraq has
altered the scenario.
Recent opinion polls suggest that Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown,
would make a more popular prime minister than Blair and would likely secure
victory for Labour at the next general election. Brown is also Blair's main
political rival, which has fueled speculation about an imminent change in
leadership. Brown has also been largely silent on Iraq, creating the
impression that it was very much "Blair's war".
If Labour performs as badly as predicted, there will be immense pressure on
Blair to resign. Already leading figures in his party have urged him to
consider quitting because he has become an electoral liability. One of the
chief reasons Koizumi's party has stuck with him is because he is considered
an electoral asset.
If Blair is forced to step down, it would be a spectacular reversal of
fortune for a man who has won two landslide general election victories and
seemed invincible prior to Iraq. For Bush, the loss of his greatest
international supporter would be a severe blow in an increasingly difficult
re-election year. Ironically, the only political survivor may be Koizumi,
the leader of a war-renouncing country. At times, war really does seem like
the unfolding of miscalculations.
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 4 May 2004, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.)
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