What Does Victory Mean: LDP and the Upper House Elections
John de Boer (University of Tokyo)
"Election results mean that the public wants the Koizumi administration to go ahead with the promise of reforms without sanctuary." These were the words proclaimed by LDP Secretary General, Taku Yamasaki, late Sunday night, shortly after it was confirmed that the LDP had won a majority in the Upper House elections. This result came as no surprise. However, confusion remains as to what this victory signifies. Is it simply a manifestation of Koizumi's 'aidoruka' (idolization) or is it proof of the public's sincere desire for comprehensive reform and their willingness to suffer 'pain' in order to 'gain'?
Considered by many as his first true test, the run-up to the Upper House elections featured a plethora of articles on the Koizumi administration. Koizumi's ascendance to Prime Minister was depicted by the press as that of a charismatic male pop star making his first international debut. Shortly after being selected as Prime Minister in April, Times Asia depicted Japanese as going, "Gaga Over Their New PM" who sang to X-Japan and mastered the art of Bill Clinton's mannerisms. Depicted was a situation so out of control, even the barber who trimmed Koizumi's mane became a national celebrity. The Christian Science Monitor pinned the reasons for the LDP's dramatic 3-month turn around in popularity on the Koizumi personality cult and his unique communication skills. Its July 29th article led off with the title, "In Japan, a leader whose words work wonders," and concluded with the hypothesis that marketing Koizumi's private life and personal interests bred popularity. "Koizumi's popularity may end up damaging him", warned the Financial Times on July 26th, by getting more conservative LDP members elected, thereby empowering opposition to his 'no sacred cow' reforms.
Although, there is no doubt that Koizumi's personal popularity has led to a LDP majority in the Upper House, it remains unclear whether Japanese are indeed supportive of Koizumi's political platform. Sighting the 2 million subscribers to Koizumi's e-mail magazine and soaring diet session TV ratings as evidence, the media has emphasized increased public interest in politics ever since Koizumi rose to power. However, voter turnout in the Upper House elections tell a different story. As of 19:30 Sunday night, only 47.2 per cent of the nearly 102 million eligible voters had cast ballots down from 50.8 per cent at the same time in the 1998 poll. This decrease amidst an atmosphere of unparalleled Prime Ministerial popularity is difficult to reconcile.
In fact, not all agree with Koizumi reforms. Many of the traditionally conservatively voting farming and industrial communities in rural Japan have voiced their disagreement with Koizumi's reforms (Asahi Shimbun, July 28th). Farmers in small town Okura, Yamagata prefecture stated that they, "don't agree at all that they have to experience more pain. They don't expect anything good to come from the elections. Regardless of who wins, (they expect) things will be the same, or could even get worse."
Koizumi and his supporters have interpreted election victory as their rubber stamp for "reforms without sanctuary". However, this may be jumping to conclusions. After all, no concrete reform proposals have been made clear to the public. Following 11 years of recession, pay cuts and forced retirements, Japanese were thirsty for a new face in politics. Closer to the truth may be the notion that people are more interested in Koizumi's profile than they are in his politics of reform.
- Lisa Takeuchi Cullen and Toshifumi Kitamura, "Japanese Go Gaga Over Their New PM," Times Asia, May 23, 2001
- Hana Kusumoto, "In Japan, a leader whose words work wonders," Christian Science Monitor, July 29, 2001
- Gillian Tett, "A reformer tackles his supporters," Financial Times, July 26, 2001
- Leotes Marie Lugo and Yumiko Baba, "Foreign farm wives see little of Koizumi fever," Asahi Shimbun, July 28, 2001.