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Smith: Abe under ‘Intense Pressure’ to Resign

Interviewee: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 30, 2007

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Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a major defeat in the July 29 elections for Japan’s upper house of parliament. Sheila A. Smith, a Japan political expert living in Tokyo, says even though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does not have to resign, there is “intense pressure” on him to do so from within his own party, though news reports suggest some senior LDP leaders support keeping Abe in his post (FT). Smith says: “We’re going to watch this unfold for the next several weeks or months because it’s a real dramatic showstopper here.”

As you predicted last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a stinging defeat in the elections for the upper house of parliament. The LDP lost its majority. What has caused this strong vote against a man who was extremely popular when he took over less than a year ago?

Even though everyone predicted this would be a tough election for the LDP and for Abe in particular, I don’t think most people quite understood the intensity of the anger of the voters. It was pretty clear last night when we were watching the election returns on television and people were talking about what motivated their voting. People were angry. Some people were directing this towards Prime Minister Abe. Others were focused more on the LDP as a political party.

But when people were asked what brought them to the polls, 40 percent to 50 percent responded “the pension issue.” They were angry about the mishandling of Japanese pensions [the pension agency admitted in May that it had lost millions of pension records]. The second issue is the economy. This reflects in some ways the impact of the reforms set in motion by the LDP by its former very popular prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. The specific economic impact of those reforms has been felt very strongly in the rural sector.

Can you be specific?

We’re talking about small- and medium-sized businesses and towns, in regional areas around Japan. There was a striking interview I saw in Chugoku, which is a fairly rural part of Japan . The people there were farmers. They were angry at the LDP for its agricultural policy, or lack of an agricultural policy. What you’re seeing across the board are sectors that have been hurt by the reform agenda. These are old, traditional areas where the LDP garnered support for most of the post-war period. There’s also a class distinction here, and a lot of the talk in exit polling and during the campaign about the disparity of wealth in Japan. This has come about as a result of this reform agenda. Part of it is urban-rural, the other part of it is people who have jobs in large Japanese companies—a salary worker— versus those who are part-time. Exit polling in the urban areas, especially among people in the twenty to forty [year old] range, produced an awful lot of unhappiness about the lack of job opportunities. These people feel stuck in a “part-time economy.” The last issue is the old issue of corruption: money and politics. Abe had a secession of cabinet members who had some problems in the way they reported their funding.

Do you think Abe will be forced to resign?

There’s intense pressure on Abe to resign. There is a precedent for a LDP prime minister to resign as a result of setbacks in the upper-house elections, not because they have to, but because the party has suffered electoral setbacks. It happened in 1989, 1998, and 2004. Very early last night when the returns were coming in, Abe said he is Japan’s prime minister, and he would live up to that responsibility.

And there’s no way he can be voted out of office except by his own party?

He can’t be voted out, but there’s an intense debate right now within the LDP that Abe might bring the party down. The [opposition] Democratic Party of course is saying, “You’re not listening to the will of the people.” We’re going to watch this unfold for the next several weeks or months because it’s a real dramatic showstopper here. This is really what’s going to keep most Japanese people riveted to their screens. Most of the exit polling, all of the faxes that are going to the government-run television network, ask: “What is Abe thinking? How can he look at this electoral response and not think it’s his responsibility?”

In some ways, what we’re seeing is a backlash against the reform agenda itself. This is what a lot of us didn’t pick up quite so deftly when we were looking forward to this election. The LDP election in 2005 was overwhelmingly for Koizumi because of his reforms. But this is a bit of a backlash, and it’s not just against the bad judgment or bad leadership of Mr. Abe, although those issues are there. People throughout the country are saying “Look, I don’t know what you’re doing here with these reforms. All I see is that my salary has gone down, my medical services are less available, my postal savings accounts are no longer safe, my pension records are no longer safe.” You’re hearing people outside of the major urban areas saying—“We’re hardest hit here with this reform agenda and we don’t really know where you’re going with it anyway.” That was a surprise to me because I didn’t realize just how much the regions—not Tokyo , Osaka , and other major urban centers—but how much the rest of Japan were really angry that they were bearing the brunt of this reform agenda.

So the election was really on bread-and-butter issues.

It was bread and butter, and again on these exit polls it was just striking to me that across regions, in rural areas, urban areas, elderly people, younger people, were saying, “I don’t know what Abe is talking about.” Abe came into office with a new conservative agenda about patriotism and “a beautiful Japan .” But time and time again people said, “I don’t know what this means! What is he talking about?” So time and time again, Abe was putting forward his vision and moving away from some of the Koizumi economic reforms. Abe was putting forward more political ideological reforms.

So in other words, the LDP should have taken advice from Bill Clinton in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Exactly. Or even: “All politics is local.” And here’s one of the things you have to give the Democratic Party credit for: Their victory last night was in large measure a defeat of the LDP. They were amazingly tactical in their electoral strategies. Ichiro Ozawa, who is currently the leader of the Democratic Party, early on targeted regions in the countryside, and he went there and shook hands, went to meet farmers, women with children, he campaigned superbly in terms of meeting the needs of the Japanese public. He also was very tactical in specific elections. Some of the senior LDP veterans who have been in the party for decades were stunningly voted out of office. The leader of the LDP in the upper house was massively defeated by a woman in her thirties. Ozawa brought in political muscle all over the place to help this woman. And she managed to defeat an old LDP veteran.

If a bill passes in the lower house, is there a way it can go into law without it being passed by the upper house?

No.

So does every bill have to be passed by both houses?

Yes, it does, except on two issues: the prime minister, and the budget. The upper house has nothing to do with the selection of the prime minister and the budgetary issues, but on other kinds of legislation, it has to get through the upper house in some form.

Will this election open the way for a real two-party system to challenge the LDP’s dominance?

The DPJ has a sufficient number of seats, but it also has other opposition people in the upper house who will agree with them on certain issues. The DPJ now will have the position of the chairman of the upper house and that position will put many chairs in place on significant committees. In a sense, that determines the legislative agenda. The DPJ already has said, “We’re not going to sit back and respond to government legislation that is presented to us. We now are in a position of putting forth our own legislation.” This is the first time in post-war history that leadership in the upper house will be in the hands of someone who’s not in the ruling party. So it will be interesting legislative politics. In August, there’s supposed to be a meeting of the Diet, and at that meeting they will discuss Japan’s extension of the anti-terror legislation which is what keeps Japan’s maritime self-defense ships in the Indian Ocean. The leadership of the DPJ has already said it doesn’t believe that law should be passed automatically. There will be full debate on whether Japanshould be assisting that operation.

 Is public opinion in Japan against the deployment of these ships?

The anti-terror legislation is little bit hard for most Japanese to distinguish from the Iraq war. So it gets caught up with a whole host of issues with the Japanese about whether or not Japan should be helping the Bush administration’s efforts in Iraq . For most Japanese, anti-terror cooperation is a good thing, but the Iraq war decision was very divisive in Japan as well as it was in other alliances around the globe. It will open up a question again about whether Japanese defensive forces should be in the Indian Ocean.

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