Japan's Abe faces uphill battle in parliamentary vote

Japan's ruling party is likely to see big losses in the Upper House elections on Sunday.

When Shinzo Abe took over the post of Japanese Prime Minister last September from his popular predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, he walked into office with an approval rating of 70 percent.

But when voters go to the polls for the Upper House elections on Sunday, analysts predict that they will punish Mr. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner for a spate of scandals among top cabinet officials and his cabinet ministers' recent series of personal gaffes. The election, pollsters say, will function as a referendum on Abe, whose approval rating has plummeted to 30 percent after only 10 months in office, according to the latest poll by the major daily Asahi Shimbun.

Regardless of the election results, Abe is likely to remain as Japanese premier because only the Lower House has the power to choose the Prime Minister. However, a voter backlash against the government will make it more difficult for Abe to continue his agenda of liberal economic reform and his efforts to institute patriotic changes to the national education system.

As the youngest postwar prime minister and the first born after World War II, Abe became popular because of his tough stance against North Korea. Abe is a strong advocate for revising the pacifist Constitution to expand Japan's global military presence and wanted to make constitutional changes a campaign issue in the upcoming elections.

Unlike his predecessor, the prime minister at first seemed poised to improve relations with China and South Korea while also pursuing a more nationalistic position at home, especially with regard to education and defense.

"Abe's intention was to write new patriotic themes in education," says Robert Pekkanen, assistant professor of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. But "nobody is interested in that, especially nonaffiliated voters. It has been a complete failure."

But for Japanese voters, Abe's worst failings came with his domestic policy. The public was infuriated when they learned the Social Insurance Agency had lost records related to about 50 million pension cases.

Abe conceded he was aware of the problems by late last year – long before the government finally responded to them at the end of May. But when members of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) grilled Abe about the pension problems before they were revealed publicly, Abe dismissed them by saying the DPJ was "just fueling the fears of the public."

"Abe mishandled it. This is a huge problem for him," says Mr. Pekkanen.

Analysts also point out that another major problem for Abe was his failure to attract nonaffiliated voters. That is in stark contrast to his predecessor, the telegenic Mr. Koizumi, who succeeded in winning the broad support of nonaffiliated voters.

But it is the string of scandals and verbal gaffes involving his appointees and ministers that experts say has been the most taxing. In January, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa referred to women of child-bearing age as "birth machines" during his speech on Japan's low birthrate.

Even Abe's initial anointment as Koizumi's successor was seen by many as based largely on "chummy" old boy's club politicking.

In the Upper House elections, 377 candidates are vying for 121 seats, half of the chamber's 242 seats. The ruling coalition probably needs 64 seats to keep its majority. But if the LDP were to suffer a crushing defeat – by winning, for example, fewer than 40 seats – Abe may still step down. In that case, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, pollsters say, could be a strong successor.

Under Koizumi, the LDP gained an overwhelming majority in the more influential Lower House in the 2005 elections. This time, the pendulum is likely to swing in the DPJ's favor. Sunday's elections may also reveal Japan's emerging two-party system.

The DPJ has focused more on voters' concerns about their economic welfare, especially since their ignominious defeat in the 2005 election, analysts say. Pension problems and the widening wealth disparity are among the election's larger issues.

For its part, the LDP, beginning under Koizumi, embarked on a series of economic reforms focused on deregulation and the controversial privatization of Japan's large postal savings system.

"Many Japanese think the LDP gained too many seats in the 2005 election, and they are saying that the LDP and the New Komeito have become so arrogant," says Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based analyst, referring to the LDP's coalition partner. "Many people think the country is governed by those who cannot understand the public."

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