- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

TOKYO — Many had expected Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to visit North Korea in June, a month before the House of Councilors elections, and to bring back family members of five kidnapped Japanese to “visit” their native land.

But soon after it was reported that Mr. Koizumi was among more than 100 lawmakers who had not paid their national pension premiums, he rushed off to Pyongyang during the weekend, and his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il swept the nonpayment of retirement contributions off Page 1.

“That is what he is good at,” said professor Akikazu Hashimoto at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “He keeps doing things like that — is that how a national leader should behave?”

Mr. Koizumi returned to Japan with five children of the kidnapped Japanese. Some members of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and families of other Japanese kidnapped and taken to North Korea criticized him for failing to win enough concessions from Pyongyang. But polls showed that most of the public approved of his visit and that support for his Cabinet surged.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan received negative publicity when leader Naoto Kan resigned for being among the politicians who had neglected to pay pension contributions, and Ichiro Ozawa, who was next in line to lead the party, admitted skipping six years of pension payments a decade ago and withdrew his candidacy.

Thanks to Mr. Koizumi’s trip, the LDP-led coalition is expected to retain the majority in the upcoming elections.

Japan’s upper-house ballot contests are among several presidential and parliamentary elections in the Asia-Pacific region this year.

South Korea

Unlike Japan, South Korea underwent a dramatic change in its political landscape in the general elections last month.

In March, liberal President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached by conservative lawmakers for incompetence and illegal electioneering. That stripped Mr. Roh of his constitutional powers and left the Constitutional Court to decide whether to oust or reinstate him, while Prime Minister Goh Kun served as acting president.

In the National Assembly elections, however, South Korean voters elected the left-of-center Uri Party in what was widely viewed as a rebuff to Mr. Roh’s ouster. Bolstered by young supporters, the pro-Roh party, formed in the fall, tripled its presence last month, winning 152 seats in the 299-member National Assembly. Many think that his victory is what persuaded the court to restore Mr. Roh’s presidential powers. Mr. Roh, who joined the ruling Uri Party last week, emerged in a stronger position.

Most party members favor a more conciliatory approach to relations with North Korea and want to become more independent of U.S. policies. A recent Uri Party survey showed that 63 percent of its members consider China to be South Korea’s most important trading and diplomatic partner, compared with 26 percent favoring the United States for that role.

However, Rep. Shin Ki-nam, second-ranking Uri Party member at its January convention and now chairman of the party, told the English-language Korea Herald in Seoul that “the United States is still our most important diplomatic partner.”

The Philippines

It’s not official yet. According to election officials, however, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has won a full six-year term in the May 10 elections by less than a million votes over film star Fernando Poe Jr. Mr. Poe’s supporters, however, have made accusations of massive fraud and warn of a “people’s power” revolt. They say that their count shows a clear victory for Mr. Poe. The presidential inauguration is scheduled for June 30.

Whoever wins has to grapple with the top domestic issue — the economy. Before the election, Mrs. Arroyo promised that if voters gave her the mandate to serve as president until 2010, she would triple loans for entrepreneurs in small and medium businesses, cut power and medical costs, build more schools, and provide clean water to villages. The creation of 1 million jobs every year is her chief objective, she added.

Mrs. Arroyo also has moved to cripple the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf, a militant group thought to have received funding from terror network al Qaeda in the early 1990s. Such efforts have gained U.S. support and international attention.

Malaysia

In the March 21 general elections, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s National Front, a secular coalition, won a landslide, capturing about 90 percent of 219 parliamentary seats. The overwhelming victory gave a boost to his reform agenda. Meanwhile, the Islamic fundamentalist opposition, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), suffered a crushing defeat, losing 20 of its 27 seats.

Mr. Abdullah, a handpicked successor to former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now has a strong mandate. Mr. Mahathir, a medical doctor before entering politics, retired Oct. 31. However, many think that he continues to lead from behind the scenes. Officially, he is now a special adviser to carmaker Proton Holdings, which is regarded as his brainchild.

Indonesia

Indonesia showcased its nostalgia for the past in the April 20 parliamentary elections. Golkar, the party of deposed President Suharto, took first place, winning 21.6 percent of the vote. President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) garnered 18.5 percent, far below the outcome in 1999 when it won more than a third of the votes. PDI-P’s showing appears likely to hurt Mrs. Megawati’s chances in the nation’s first-ever direct presidential election on July 5.

Moreover, Golkar picked retired Gen. Wiranto, who ran the military under Suharto, as the party’s presidential candidate. The choice is notable because Gen. Wiranto has been indicted by the World Court for crimes against humanity during East Timor’s bloody 1999 plebiscite on independence. He will face an uphill battle, because most polls show Mrs. Megawati’s former security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of the Democratic Party, as the front-runner.

Although about 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the main battle has been among the secular parties — Golkar, PDI-P and the Democratic Party.

Taiwan

The March 20 election captured international attention with a series of unusual events, including a reputed assassination attempt on the incumbent and a sizable number of invalid votes. President Chen Shui-bian eked out a narrow victory over Lien Chan of the Kuomintang. Then the world paid great attention to Mr. Chen’s posture toward China in his swearing-in ceremony. In his inaugural address last week, he sounded a conciliatory tone and vowed not to push for independence. He also said he is willing to have friendlier relations with Beijing during his second term.

The speech was “almost entirely predictable, given the pressure on Chen from internal forces, the Americans and China,” the English-language Taipei Times said in an editorial.

However, Mr. Chen promised to pursue his plan to give a “new version of our constitution” to Taiwan and its people, irritating China, which quickly dismissed his earlier conciliatory words.

“I sincerely hope I can have the opportunity to visit Washington over the next four years … and personally witness the sincere friendship between the peoples of Taiwan and the United States,” Mr. Chen reportedly told a group of pro-independence Taiwanese-American professors in Taipei on Saturday.

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