After Abe: back to old ways?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2007, 12:00am

Despite widespread agreement that Shinzo Abe should have resigned as Japanese prime minister after his party's rout in the July upper house election, his decision to quit still stunned many. That was especially because it came only two days after he had vowed to 'stake his job' on extending the Maritime Self-Defence Force's mandate to refuel vessels in the Indian Ocean.

While his resignation may end his political career, it is a brilliant tactical move: it robs the opposition Democratic Party of Japan of political momentum and gives the ruling Liberal Democratic Party a chance to reconnect with voters. Much depends on who the LDP picks to succeed Mr Abe: a party determined to reassure voters will opt for an older, known quantity, even though that may herald a return to the old LDP and a retreat from the dynamism of the Junichiro Koizumi years.

Traditionally, a Japanese prime minister would have resigned after his party took the beating the LDP received in the July vote. That Mr Abe didn't step down as expected was taken as proof that he truly had a 'tin ear' for politics. While he pledged to refocus his new administration, the daily drip of scandals that forced the resignation of ministers and other officials ended any hopes for a fresh start.

Ichiro Ozawa, president of the DPJ, has exploited every misstep to realise his goal of forcing the LDP from power. His brilliant electioneering (along with the government's blunders) produced the July victory. Mr Ozawa has vowed to fight the extension of the Anti-terrorism Special Measures Law - which permits the Marine Self-Defence Force to refuel vessels as part of the US 'war on terror'. So far, he has outfoxed the government.

Mr Abe's resignation changes the dynamic. Stepping down eliminates a lightning rod for criticism. Giving up the prime minister's office is the sort of sacrifice that Japanese expect from their leaders. It changes the focus of the political debate from Mr Abe to Mr Ozawa, who many believe is making a technical argument against a deployment that he would have supported under other circumstances. The marine force is refuelling ships from many countries, supporting a multinational force that is struggling to defeat the Taleban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and making precisely the type of international contribution that Mr Ozawa fought hard for in the first Gulf war.

Mr Abe's resignation means that Mr Ozawa's arguments, rather than Mr Abe's behaviour, will be the focus of debate. Much will depend on who the LDP selects as the new prime minister; the vote is expected on September 23. The frontrunner is LDP secretary-general and former foreign minister Taro Aso, who is viewed as an experienced politician with the gravitas for the office. He also made several verbal gaffes while serving as foreign minister and his views on foreign policy are close to Mr Abe's, which may be too conservative for many Japanese.

If the LDP is looking for a figure that can reassure voters alarmed by Mr Abe's youth and outlook, then former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda may get the nod.

He is rooted in the LDP's more pacifist traditions and would project the competence and seniority that voters seek. And if the upper house result was more of a vote against the LDP than a vote for the opposition, then the presence of a more statesmanlike figure in charge, coupled with (residual) sympathy for Mr Abe, could be all Japanese voters need to stick with the party they know and have historically trusted. Mr Fukuda is also likely to get support from party leaders who prefer that party posts be allocated the traditional way - by decision among elders, rather than by an empowered party president, as Mr Koizumi did.

The foreign-policy implications of Mr Abe's decision are likely to be muted. No prime minister - even Mr Aso - would embrace an openly confrontational policy towards China, absent a provocative gesture by Beijing. Japan still seeks better relations with Seoul, but there is agreement that top-level initiatives will have to await December's South Korean presidential election result. Mr Abe's resignation could open the door to movement in relations with Pyongyang.

Nor would relations with the US be hurt. Japanese security decision-makers and analysts remain committed to the alliance: external developments have underscored the vital role the US plays in Japan's security. And, even though Mr Ozawa has picked a fight over the Indian Ocean deployment, he, like most Japanese, believes the country can and should do more internationally - the debate is over the terms of that contribution.

Washington will have to be prepared for indecision and perhaps even paralysis in Tokyo on a host of issues. Patience will be essential. In one sense, Japan is entering uncharted territory, with the opposition ascendant and in control of one house of the Diet. At the same time, however, this situation may result in a Japan that is all too familiar: hesitant in its policy, insular, slow to respond and dominated by bureaucrats.

Or Mr Koizumi may come back - in which case, all bets are off.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS