Koizumi Loses "Referendum"
John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)
With little bearing on the immediate fate of the ruling coalition, Japan's Upper House elections, held July 11th, were billed as a referendum on Prime Minister Koizumi's policies. The outcome, which saw the main opposition Democratic Party beat out the ruling Liberal Democratic Party by two seats (51 to 49), was widely interpreted as a blow to Koizumi's standing and, in particular, opposition to his Iraq policy and pension reforms. The Democratic Party's gain of 13 seats came as no surprise considering that Koizumi's approval rating had dropped to a record low of 37.5 per cent, according to the latest Yomiuri poll.
Koizumi's leadership is being challenged, and although he has refused to take responsibility for the LDP's defeat by resigning, his in-party support base has likely weakened simultaneously to his public backing. This raises questions as to how long Koizumi will remain effective as a policy maker. A product of the elections has been to make the LDP even more reliant on the Komeito, its coalition partner, which is now being characterized as "the LDP's lifeline" (Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, July 11).
Contrary to Koizumi's shaky standing in Japan, the Bush administration has praised him for being decisive and supportive on Iraq. Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice called Japan an "anchor" in Washington's foreign policy on the 7 July as she toured Asia. As far as the U.S. is concerned Koizumi's leadership qualities are first rate.
According to assessments of the report submitted by the Japanese government to the United Nations Secretary General's Advisory Panel on United Nations Reform, the Koizumi administration agrees with the US government. Kyodo News reported on July 6 that Japan has heightened its push for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council "due to its troops participation in the multinational force in Iraq." Japanese representatives to the meeting hosted in Kyoto are arguing that the Self-Defense Force's dispatch to Iraq proves Japan's desire to play a more assertive role in maintaining peace and security in the world.
The irony not only exists in the fact that the invasion of Iraq eroded international and national security but also because Koizumi's party lost the latest elections in large part due to his intransigence on reconsidering the SDF's role in "post-transition" Iraq and his unilateral extension of their mandate. Many voters complained about Koizumi's refusal to discuss the extension publicly and felt as though his leadership was becoming increasingly detached from Japan's national interests and the public will.
What Japanese officials are framing as their country's strength and merits are in fact hollow. In a best case scenario, support for Japan's troop dispatch to Iraq remains sketchy. The latest "referendum" on Koizumi's government, make it blatantly clear that Koizumi is acting irresponsibly by neglecting his duty as the elected representative of Japan. The foreign policy he is actively pursuing in relation to Iraq runs contrary to what the majority in Japan wants and thinks is prudent. If the current prime minister wants to stay in power, he should head to the demands of society and no-one else.