Two disparate sources provide some good perspective on Abe’s upcoming premiership:
Morgan Stanley’s Robert Alan Feldman lays out the possibly dangerous prospects of an Abe government based on the concerns of domestic and foreign investors. Domestic investors, as can be expected, have the most informed opinion and are most concerned about the following: Regardless of his campaign promises, Abe will likely not have Koizumi’s political wherewithal to push reform efforts, for the most basic reason: “Unlike Koizumi, Abe is not a maverick. Abe has yet to prove to the satisfaction of investors that he will say no to vested interests, instead of saying that he will say no.” It also won’t help that Abe is boring (lacks “Koizumi’s sound-bite style” which is effective in selling policies to the people). Second, the Abe government might not last long if his party does poorly in next July’s upper house elections. Two major issues that have a good chance of hurting the LDP are worsened relations with China (pretty likely), or if Abe caves in to demands for increased pork spending in the rural areas (also likely… Feldman sees this as sure to backfire since more spending in this era of disastrous fiscal debt might not do much for the rural voters but will almost certainly anger urban unaffiliated voters which have proven a decisive voting bloc recently). The fall of the Abe cabinet could result in the “frightening scenario” of “a return to the revolving door prime ministers of the 1990s” which was perhaps one of the biggest reasons behind that decade or so of stagnation. Unfortunately, Feldman’s conclusion seems only to support the most frightening scenario since his recommendations are unlikely to be followed: “In the end, I believe that both foreign and domestic investors need to see clarity of message, strong personnel choices, concrete policy agendas with legislative deadlines, and a focus on issues that will help Japan continue allocate resources efficiently.”
Kikko (of Kikko’s Blog fame) gives us an idea of how the media works with those in power to convince the public to accept Abe, a potentially controversial candidate for prime minister due to his hardline stances on China etc. She rejects the idea that the public supports Abe, a claim repeated over and over by the Japanese media. Public opinion polls used to prove this popularity she claims are complete fabrications. As a counterpoint, she sites a Yahoo poll that has the public supporting Foreign Minister Taro Aso, with Abe coming in a distant third. According to Kikko, there’s no way the Japanese public could support Abe, a man “riddled with suspicion” who is accused of ties to the Yakuza, the Unification Church (which he recently sent a letter of congratulations to a mass marriage conducted by the church in Japan… Kikko’s big beef with the Moonies is their practice of aggressively selling overpriced goods with “spiritual value”), who abuses his power to help his wife meet Korean actresses, who allegedly helped the Ushio Corporation, which is run by the father of Abe’s sister-in-law, invest in the Murakami Fund (started by a former Finance bureaucrat who is now alleged to have used his political and business contacts to engage in massive insider trading), who lied about studying abroad (claimed to have studied politics for 2 years at USC but actually took 6 courses over 3 semesters, 3 of them ESL classes), and who supports building not only offensive war capability but also nuclear capability for Japan’s military. In her assessment, the major media, especially the Yomiuri Shimbun (she calls them an “LDP PR rag”), are simply lining up to flatter the next leader so they can continue their close ties. She notes that domestic coverage of Abe tends to leave out his international image, as reported in Newsweek and Time, as a potential political weakling and dangerous provocateur of China.
The event to watch will be the July election. If Abe really screws up, then he might be in trouble. The question is, though: How can he screw up?
I have to wonder how important the China issue will be. China is less keen to use the Yasukuni card these days (as noted by Robert Angel at Japan Considered) since they’ve seen they aren’t really getting anywhere with it. Abe, for his part, has never promised he’d go. There are certainly other ways for him to destroy relations with China, but for now things actually seem to be improving. And anyway, people actually seem to support Abe when he takes strong stances against Japan’s neighbors.
And structural reform has gotten a huge amount of bad press since the Sept 2005 election. Horie and Murakami were strung up as poster children for the dark side of the new Japan, a scandal involving faked earthquake safety documents was blamed on Koizumi-style deregulation, and a national debate over the breakdown of income equality is making further reform look less sexy by the day. Abe’s platform so far is to push growth policies ahead of reform, led by a program to offer “second chances” to companies that have failed. As the Asahi reports, the bureaucrats have listened to his proposal (or was it the other way around?) and have “brazenly” come up with “second chance” programs that would actually increase respective ministries’ budget outlays. He still talks the talk about fiscal reform, but the stars are aligning against it and it’s doubtful he’ll try anything that would risk good relations within the LDP before July.
So if Abe is likely to remain strong on the biggest issues, then how can he screw up? What Feldman never mentioned was that for Abe’s LDP to lose the election the electorate would have to cast its vote for the opposition DPJ, making that party’s election strategy a key factor. The party recently reelected president Ichiro Ozawa and is attempting to present a united front leading into July.
Ozawa has taken the unusual tactic of trying to convince some of the anti-postal privatization LDP members who were ousted from their old party to join the DPJ camp. Some of those former lower house members were extremely influential in their home districts, making them attractive candidates since they are electable. As a result, the LDP has had to consider taking them back themselves since they want to avoid losing their slim majority in the Upper House. The DPJ wants these people because they can win elections some of the directly-elected seats that represent Japan’s 47 prefectures. Ozawa believes that if he can win a majority of the 73 such seats that are up for grabs then his party can take control of the upper house, so getting a shoo-in candidate makes the party’s job that much easier.
On the issues, the DPJ has been pushing policies to close the “wealth gap” and emphasizing the close links between the LDP and the bureaucracy, claiming that the latter is controlling the former and watering down attempts to slash spending through such initiatives as privatizing government-run organizations, moves that the DPJ supports.
Given Abe’s popularity, especially in national security, it might be tough for the DPJ, which has been weak on international issues, to convince the electorate to support them in a time when North Korea scares the bejeezus out of people. Additionally, the DPJ remains divided on the constitutional revision issue, which Abe is set to give priority early on in his term. If they aren’t able to effectively participate in the debate, the the DPJ may once again look too incompetent to be elected.