Murky mandate a challenge for Koizumi

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 12:00am

The message coming through from Sunday's Japanese elections was one of apathy and disillusionment. The voter turnout was the second lowest in post-war Japanese history and those who did vote failed to give Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party a simple majority in the Diet's powerful lower house. The LDP won 237 seats out of 480, while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan picked up 40 new seats, for a total of 177. Mr Koizumi and the LDP will stay in power by counting the votes of coalition partners and wooing independents, but the mandate they received is a murky one, setting the stage for some turbulent times in Japanese politics.

Mr Koizumi maintains an approval rating above 50 per cent, making him one of the most popular politicians in Japan. He has achieved this by portraying himself as the maverick of the LDP. But Sunday's result, including the low turnout, shows that many voters are no longer so sure he is the man to take on party conservatives or the special interests they serve - namely business, farmers and the construction industry. It appears that voters are even beginning to wonder seriously whether the LDP, after 50 years in power, is best suited to run the country now. Thirteen years of economic stagnation has resulted in at least some voters being willing to use the ballot to demand a faster pace of change.

Both the LDP and the DPJ ran on reform platforms. The DPJ's strong showing is a clear indication that Mr Koizumi's pledges to carry on with changes to the tax system, dispose of bad loans in the banking system and privatise powerful state-owned companies will meet little opposition in parliament.

The political challenge comes from the DPJ's emergence as a viable second party. Portrayed up to now as a loose coalition that is not ready to rule, the DPJ could prove to be a bigger challenge when the next general elections come around. That leaves just a few years for Mr Koizumi and the LDP to take action.

An immediate source of potential instability is the subject of military development. The LDP has backed sending troops to Iraq and revising the war-renouncing constitution, possibly setting the stage for the country to develop nuclear weapons. As pacifist sentiment in the country is strong and may have played a role in narrowing the party's electoral margin, there is no ruling out the issue as a flashpoint for conflict in parliament or in public debate.

Despite this, the economy will remain a central concern. Conservatives in Mr Koizumi's party may use Sunday's results as an excuse to dilute Mr Koizumi's influence inside the LDP. Some may even see it as an opportunity to stall on reforms. Given the DPJ's show of strength, this would prove a grave tactical error.