Friday, September 09, 2005

Cross your fingers!

In addition to being a day of remembrance, this Sunday is also notable because of the elections in Japan. I know what you’re thinking…since George Bush has taken office, it seems that you can’t sling a dead cat without hitting a significant election, some in places where such events are a true precedent. Of course, Japan has had free and fair elections for many decades – as it is a shining example of U.S. nation building. This particular election is significant for two main reasons. The election, itself, is billed primarily as a referendum on Koizumi’s reform agenda – and specifically his privatization plan for the Japanese postal system. It is also important to the U.S. because Koizumi's fate is tied directly to the election and he has been a strong ally in Iraq as well as with our defense posture in Asia.

On the domestic front, Koizumi has done much to push tough reforms through that have added to the long-term economic health of Japan. The more radical parties would say that he hasn’t gone far enough and that as an LDP member he's still subject to special interests, etc. However, considering the resistance to reform that Koizumi faced when coming into power, his performance has been impressive – most visibly with Japan’s banking system. Indeed, he’s met resistance every step of the way. Now he’s pushing his postal reform bill, which has been a keystone of his reform agenda. This bill seeks to privatize – more or less – an institution that is, in addition to a postal service, the largest financial institution in the world as well as an insurance company. The effects of his proposed reform, so far as I understand it, will reap little short-term benefits but will lay groundwork for future growth. When the lower house of the diet defeated the bill with the aid of 30+ LDP defectors, Koizumi quickly dissolved the parliament and set the upcoming elections. At that time it looked like he had a steep uphill battle, with victory unlikely. If he loses, he will have to resign and his reform agenda will be severely crippled, if not completely abandoned. If he wins, he will remain until the end of his term in 2006 and should be able to push the postal reform through. The boldness he displayed is rare in Japanese politics and has created a level political excitement in a country that is not very politically exciting.

On a party level, the LDP is something else. It’s managed to be the dominant party for over half a century. And it hasn’t done so in the same ways that Mubarak in Egypt has done or the People’s Party in China has done. Opposition parties have been free to campaign and try to win the people’s support. The past decade has seen some erosion of LDP support, but thanks largely to Koizumi, they are expecting a reversal in this trend. And this support seems to be coming from younger people and coming in urban areas – again, showing a reversal to recent trends.

From an American perspective – long term Japanese growth is certainly important for a variety of reasons. A prosperous Japan is good for trade, but it’s also good for a healthy diplomatic landscape in Asia. As mentioned before, it’s important for us that Japan emerge from its pacifist period and become an increasing participant in the War on Terror.

While foreign policy doesn’t seem to be a main deciding factor in the upcoming election (except, perhaps, in regards to the issue of kidnapped Japanese in N. Korea), foreign policy will be affected. Koizumi has led the way in an important transition. He’s sent troops to Iraq – to his own political detriment, he’s reinterpreted the idea of Japan’s national defense and solidified support for the defense of Taiwan, he’s also strengthened ties with Australia, and he has had our back with the 6 party talks. These stances would each suffer a blow if Koizumi finds himself on the way out next week. Inevitably, Japan’s prosperity and survival will rely on these shifts. A Koizumi defeat will make the transition that much more difficult and painful.

For an American, regardless of whether you think Bush is a unilateral knucklehead or a spreader of freedom, you would be hard pressed to justify rooting against Koizumi – unless you are also rooting for a U.S. defeat in Iraq and elsewhere. After all, isn’t it the tagline of Bush haters that we don’t have enough allies? And isn’t Japan one of our main allies? Likewise, our N. Korean strategy (and yes, there is one) would also be compromised and our leverage in dealing with China weakened without a fast friend like Koizumi. In short, no good can come of a Koizumi defeat.

The U.S. has been lucky thus far. The political leaders that make up the Coalition of the Willing have fared well in elections. While we lost Aznar in Spain, Blair and Howard both won. It seems likely that Schroeder will be out and Chirac seems to be weakening (granted, not because of Iraq so much as the domestic issues). A Koizumi victory would continue that trend. The world needs more courageous political leaders like him. Cross your fingers!

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