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Koizumi Games the System

Koizumi Games the System

Tactics, not issues, were key to the LDP's landslide win in Japan, argues UCLA Professor Emeritus Hans Baerwald.

By Ayub Khattak

When you don’t get anywhere close to a two-thirds popular vote and you are winning well over two-thirds of the seats, you can be assured there’s something in the system that’s working for you.

“Issues don’t necessarily determine election outcomes. Often it’s the electoral system,” cautioned Hans Baerwald, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at UCLA, in an analysis of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s unexpectedly wide margin of victory in September elections for Japan's powerful House of Representatives. Baerwald explained the feat of Koizumi and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Oct. 17 at a colloquium held by the Center for Japanese Studies.

In August, when Koizumi dissolved the lower chamber of the Diet, or parliament, and called for general elections, dissenters within the LDP cried that he was bent on destroying his own party. Koizumi claimed he was reforming it. LDP members in the upper chamber of parliament had helped to kill Koizumi's proposal to privatize the nation's massive Postal Service. The proposal remains the centerpiece of Koizumi's bid to revive the nation's economy.

Koizumi’s “big gamble” paid off, Baerwald said, largely because of the tactics he employed in the election. He purged dissenters from the party and sent shikaku, or "assassins," to run against purged LDP members who ran as independents. The result was that all of the candidates, in 300 districts, were hand-picked.

Koizumi secured the female vote by choosing women to represent the LDP in certain districts. Plus, Baerwald joked of the telegenic prime minister, “the women simply love his pompadour.”

Baerwald observed that Koizumi's undeniably shrewd decisions were informed by LDP data on demographics and voting patterns that political opponents did not have. The data helped the LDP to pick candidates and to pour money just where it was needed. In this sense, the gamble was scarcely a gamble at all, according to Baerwald.

Keen manipulation of the system gave Koizumi the victory. “When you don’t get anywhere close to a two-thirds popular vote and you are winning well over two-thirds of the seats, you can be assured there’s something in the system that’s working for you,” Baerwald said. That is, something aside from the issues.

The Reform Myth

But what are the issues? Japan’s stagnant economy has created tension within the public, which is demanding some sort of change to jump-start things, according to Baerwald. It’s a reformist's market. But even with the LDP's landslide victory in the House of Representatives, Koizumi is still unable to change the country's U.S.-drafted constitution. That would require a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors, the upper chamber.

Not that it would ever come to that, Baerwald said. Japanese politicians may talk about changing the constitution, which was translated into Japanese from English, but they do not take concrete steps. Changes would be necessary to address controversial defense-related issues, especially the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. The charter also prevents Japan from acquiring nuclear arms.

Posturing on the constitution is an acceptable distraction in Japan, part of the myth of reform, Baerwald said.

Rather than attempt that kind of reform, Baerwald explained, Koizumi has seized on the issue of privatizing the Postal Service, a $280 billion financial institution, one of the largest in the world. Perhaps with this stroke, Koizumi will be able to prime the economy and inspire consumer confidence—or, Baerwald suggested, continue to fund political agendas.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies