[OUTLOOK]A political gamble in Japan

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[OUTLOOK]A political gamble in Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has made the unexpected decision to dissolve the lower house of the Diet. As chairman of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Koizumi had pledged to privatize the postal system. After the postal privatization bills, which passed the lower house by a margin of just five votes, were rejected in the House of Councilors by a 17-vote margin on Aug. 8, Mr. Koizumi immediately dissolved the lower house as if he had been waiting for the chance.
Mr. Koizumi took the rejection of the bills as a personal vote of non-confidence. An ordinary politician would have attempted to make a political compromise by extending deliberation on the bills, or would have tendered the general resignation of his cabinet as he staked the fate of his administration on the bills. But stubborn Mr. Koizumi pushed forward without listening to any advice, even going so far as to dismiss a cabinet member who opposed his decision to dissolve the lower chamber.
In Japan, this move is being called a “suicidal dissolution.” This is because what Mr. Koizumi did was unthinkable in common-sense terms. First of all, dissolving the lower chamber because the upper chamber rejected a bill is unprecedented in Japanese constitutional history, and is hard to explain logically. He should have asked the upper house to take political responsibility, but he could not do so, because there will be no change in the House of Councilors even after elections. This is why a representative said his dissolution was like hitting Nagasaki after being smacked on the cheek in Tokyo.
Furthermore, the coming general election in September presages a rift in the Liberal Democratic Party. The biggest reason for the rejection of the bills was that opposition forces within the Liberal Democratic Party voted against them. Thirty-seven lawmakers in the lower house and 22 lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party in the upper house voted against the bills. Mr. Koizumi declared that he would not give the party’s official endorsement in the coming election to the 37 Liberal Democratic Party members who voted against the bills in the lower house. This is a tremendous gamble at a time when he needs to increase the number of candidates for the Liberal Democratic Party. But that is not all.
The Koizumi administration has done a number of things that have reflected poorly upon it. Not only were the postal bills rejected, but Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a cause he advocated, has little chance of coming to pass. Mr. Koizumi’s diplomacy with other Asian countries is at a low point because of his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. If, as rumored, he presses ahead with a visit to the shrine on Aug. 15, the 60th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat, in order to secure support from the country’s conservatives, he will be giving the opposition party ammunition with which to attack him.
It is hard to see a favorable aspect of any kind for the Liberal Democratic Party in next month’s election. It is not at all clear whether the main issue will be privatization of the postal service, as Mr. Koizumi wishes it to be.
The result of the election could be upheaval in Japanese politics. If a majority of the people support Mr. Koizumi, and the Liberal Democratic Party wins a simple majority in the Diet, even without opposition faction members within the party, his political status will climb. He will remain the powerful chairman of the party, and prime minister who has the authority to nominate the next candidate for leadership.
But the chances of that happening seem very low. The Liberal Democratic Party will be divided in this election, with some lawmakers likely to leave the party. Even if it cannot win a simple majority, the Liberal Democratic Party may manage to maintain its political power through a coalition with the New Komeito Party.
But the responsibility for the defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party would fall to Mr. Koizumi, who made the decision to dissolve the lower house. In other words, contrary to his wish, Mr. Koizumi is very likely to be in a situation in which he will have to resign.
If this happens, the autocratic Mr. Koizumi is likely to be replaced by a moderate, harmonious peacemaker. If the opposition Democratic Party of Japan wins a substantial number of seats, but not a majority, there is a possibility it could be joined by other minority parties and defectors from the Liberal Democrats to create a coalition that overthrows the Liberal Democratic Party.
This is the most plausible scenario if the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito Party cannot win a majority despite their concerted efforts.
Finally, there is a chance the Democratic Party could do better than expected and win a majority. If it does, it will be the first opposition party in Japanese history to seize power by its own strength. That would surely be a harbinger of change in Japanese politics.

* The writer is a professor of Japanese politics at the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Park Cheol-hee
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