Koizumi's Move: Change Uncertain in Japan

Article excerpt

In a country often characterized by political apathy and government inertia, Japan's general election of 2005 was novel. For the first time in recent history, an incumbent prime minister ran and was re-elected on a platform that centered on a single, highly salient political issue. The election was effectively a referendum on privatizing Japan Post, Japan's vast state-run postal service. Koizumi portrayed passage as a key step in reforming-Japan's burdened economic structure and rejuvenating growth. Yet given the substantial opposition to the changes within the Japanese Diet, whether the victorious Koizumi can successfully implement this and other policies remains uncertain.

Before the election season, the dominance of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed Japan almost continuously since its founding in 1955, had been growing increasingly precarious. In recent years, the LDP did little in the way of enacting structural reforms that might reverse Japan's twelve-year-long economic downturn. Even Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the maverick LDP politician elected in 2001 on a pledge to overhaul the financial system, was unable to push through reform due to resistance from his party's old guard. In the November 2003 general election, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), armed with a party "manifesto" railing against LDP policies, lowered the LDP majority in the lower house of the Japanese Diet. DPJ supporters declared the coming end of LDP political monopoly, and analysts predicted the gradual emergence of a two-party system in Japan based on distinct ideological agendas.

Struggling to implement the changes promised, and sensing rapidly dwindling public patience, Koizumi engineered an election surprise. For years he had envisioned a scheme to privatize Japan Post, the national postal system. Japan Post, which is the world's largest holder of personal savings and Japan's largest source of employment, is widely viewed as a locus of inefficiency and LDP patronage impeding Japan's economic recovery. After his privatization plan was voted down in the Japanese Diet's upper house, Koizumi dissolved parliament and called for a snap election. In doing so, he cast his party as a champion of reform, attacking dissenting stalwarts. Armed with this new image for his party and facing off against an ill-prepared DPJ, Koizumi rallied the public and handed the LDP a landslide victory on September 11.

As a result of the elections, the prospects of a competitive two-party system in Japan have been dashed for the conceivable future. …