- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

Akikazu Hashimoto, a senior research associate at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, spoke with Washington Times reporter Takehiko Kambayashi about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet and upcoming July elections to the house of Councilors, Japan’s upper house.

Question: What do you make of the results of two upper house by-elections Sunday? [In the rural prefecture of Fukushima, a Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) candidate won a landslide victory, while in Okinawa, a subtropical island of Japan where U.S. military bases are concentrated, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate defeated her DPJ rival.]

Answer: First, the media reported that both the ruling coalition and the opposition camp had one victory and one loss. But how they viewed the by-elections is totally wrong.

The opposition camp in Okinawa — totally different from that of the rest of Japan — seeks immediate removal of U.S. bases from the island. But now, fewer Japanese support that position. So what is taking place in Okinawa is very different from the rest of Japan. Thus, even though Aiko Shimajiri, the candidate backed by the LDP and New Komeito, won the by-election in Okinawa, that does not mean the ruling coalition was supported.

Second, the DPJ has made significant gains in municipal and prefectural elections, though the number of LDP members still surpasses that of the DPJ. But the LDP’s overwhelming majority in the provinces doesn’t mean the party will win the upper house election. Even when the DPJ did not attract broad support, it often won more votes than the LDP in earlier upper house elections.

If nothing is done, the ruling coalition cannot maintain its upper house majority. I have been saying this for three years. [Half of the 242 seats in parliament’s upper house are elected every three years.] The result of the by-elections does not seem to have much effect on the upper house election in July, for better or worse. The DPJ has continued to expand its support base. That is the fact.

If they also had someone like French presidential candidate Segolene Royal emerging, the DPJ would be sure to beat the LDP.

Speaking of the by-election in Okinawa, they had the lowest voter turnout in the island’s history — 47.8 percent — even though Prime Minister Abe himself flew to the island twice, and LDP and DPJ leaders, including DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, was on the campaign trail. This clearly shows that the political clout of the leaders of both parties has diminished.

Q: You have said the prime minister failed to attract nonaffiliated voters while his predecessor Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi enjoyed their broad support. Why has Mr. Abe been so unpopular among nonaffiliated voters?

A: Mr. Koizumi was able to speak simply and clearly about his domestic policy. He garnered votes from wealthy people and the so-called working poor. Mr. Abe, on the other hand, has failed to articulate domestic programs. The only thing he can sell is the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea, and he has few topics that appeal to the public, so we often get a glimpse of his hawkish nature.

More and more people say they are not going to vote for Mr. Abe, though they did for Mr. Koizumi.

Q: Despite opposition from some influential LDP members, Mr. Abe said he will make constitutional changes a campaign issue in the upper house election. Will he succeed?

A: I don’t think it will become a campaign issue. When it comes to constitutional revision, each party has different opinions internally. The two major parties are not going to clash directly over the issue. But if the ruling coalition lost a majority, there would be a possibility that the loss could spark a political reorganization of the two parties. If Mr. Abe anticipates this, it does make sense.

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