By Yuki Tatsumi – On July 29, 2007, Japanese voters spoke with a loud and clear voice: they do not like the way Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has governed since September 2006. In the Upper House election, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a historical defeat, being able to secure only 37 out of 64 seats that were up for re-election. The election cost the LDP its position as the largest party in the Upper House-the position it has maintained since 1955.
Prime Minister Abe has already indicated that he will not resign. With the LDP party leadership supporting the decision, he seems to get his wish. Abe’s defenders argue that LDP’s poor performance in the election is not so much about the expression of “no confidenceï¿½Eto Abe and his policy agenda, but more about the immediate reaction to the problems at home. Indeed, some of the direct causes for LDP’s historical defeat were, in a sense, out of Abe’s control. For instance, one key reason for LDP’s loss in the election is the recent revelation that approximately fifty million people’s pension records went missing. The origin of the problem is the incompetence and poor oversight of the Social Security Agency that dates back to 1980s-long before Abe’s tenure. Abe also suffered from problems of his own cabinet members, some related to corruption, and others gaffes.
The issue, however, may be larger than that. Sunday’s election should really be seen as a demonstration of the Japanese public’s disappointment with Abe as their leader.
When Prime Minister Abe came to power, people in and outside Japan had high hopes for him. While there were concerns about his lack of experience in his political career-he never served in a cabinet position prior to becoming prime minister in 2006-and personal views toward some of the issues related to Japan’s wartime behavior, observers by and large regarded Abe as a direct successor of Junichiro Koizumi, and he could play the role of a young, strong and decisive leader who would lead Japan into the 21st century. Many compared Abe with his grandfather, late former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, and emphasized the quality of statesman that Abe inherited from Kishi-a strong leader with determination and a clear vision for the future, yet with enough pragmatism to make compromises and show flexibility when necessary.
After 10 months in the office, Abe has emerged with quite a different image. The Japanese people saw him not able to let go of the cabinet ministers who created problems for his government, either because he was too stubborn to listen to advice or because he could not muster enough courage to make the decision. They saw him accomplishing little on the economic reform agenda he inherited from his predecessor. He appeared stubborn for not allowing flexibility in Japan’s negotiating position in the Six-Party talks. Furthermore, he was constantly on the defensive on both domestic and foreign policy issues, from the pension scandal to the comfort women. In each case, the Japanese public time and time again saw in Abe a leader who could not make decisions, and once he made decisions, could not admit mistakes and correct course.
If the voters disillusion with Abe is the real cause of LDP’s defeat in last week’s election, he is in much deeper trouble than many think he is. With the approval rate for his cabinet plummeting, he has very little time to demonstrate to the dismayed voters that he listens to their concerns and deserves a second chance. Without visible efforts on his part to that end and with very little political gravity not only within LDP but also in the Diet, Abe may have no choice but to muddle through the remainder of his term and exit as a politically battered prime minister. He can avoid such a predicament by proving that he can actually govern. Forming a cabinet that is competent at the cabinet reshuffle expected in late August will be a good first start.