The muddy waters of the post-Koizumi era

For those who want a general overview of the present state of Japanese politics — what’s changed, what hasn’t — check out this article by Tokyo University professor Kabashima Ikuo and PhD candidate Okawa Chihiro. Published at Japan Echo, a monthly journal that publishes translations of scholarly articles originally written in Japanese, Kabashima and Okawa provide a competent account of the transition from Koizumi to Abe and the reasons for Abe’s difficulties of late.

I particularly liked their account of urban-rural dynamics in the evolution of the Japanese political system:

The electoral reforms of 1994 rectified the rural prefectures’ overrepresentation in the Diet and increased the electoral importance of the urban districts, and the LDP was unable to win over urban voters. After the short-lived reformist administrations of Hosokawa Morihiro and Hata Tsutomu, the LDP returned to power by means of a coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Japan (formerly the Japan Socialist Party, now the Social Democratic Party) and the small New Party Sakigake (now defunct), and it formed other coalitions to weather subsequent threats. In the meantime, however, the depopulation and aging of the LDP’s rural support base and the decay of the LDP support apparatus had been accelerating. It was clear that the party could not hope to retain control of the government over the long term without building support in the urban areas.

This is the historical context in which Koizumi Jun’ichirô, an urban politician from the city of Yokosuka, was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2001. Koizumi ran for president of the LDP on the paradoxical- sounding promise that he would “smash the LDP,” but what he was talking about was the old “LDP system.” Persuaded by Koizumi’s call for a neoliberal program of structural reforms, Japanese voters—especially urban voters—entrusted him with the task of overhauling an obsolete socioeconomic system that had brought the nation to a dead end.

Thanks in part to his unusual personal popularity, a result of his unique style of leadership, Koizumi was able to leverage the “prime minister effect” to bring urban voters back to the LDP. It was Koizumi who cast light on the urban areas where the LDP had struggled and thus breathed life back into the LDP. The summit of his accomplishment was the 2005 general election.

Abe clearly lacks the effortless appeal to urban voters that Koizumi had, and I have serious doubts if Koizumi truly succeeded at converting the LDP into an urban party. That is the context for the upcoming local and Upper House elections. If Koizumi failed, and the DPJ, for all its incoherence and opportunism, remains the default party of urban Japan, then this summer might be especially painful for Abe’s LDP.

Read the whole thing.

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